Is water shedding next?
We are all too familiar with load shedding and the electricity crisis. Although a nuisance to both industry and private users we have more or less come to accept the inevitability that this will remain a part of our life. But will we be as complacent when it comes to water cuts? Are we heading in the same direction when considering water supply? Is water shedding inevitable and a thing of the near future? Unlike electricity, water security is far more serious from a livelihood, health and socio-economic development point of view. And unlike electricity there is no substitute for water.
Load shedding is predominantly about decaying infrastructure and lack of investment in generating electricity. It is not unreasonable to say that water infrastructure is going pretty much the same route. At strategic level there has been a lot of planning to ensure that South Africa has sufficient water. If it means pumping and piping it to the distribution point to areas that have shortages, it is going to happen. But that is where it stops! At municipal level the infrastructure has been neglected to such an extent that 40% off all water supplied to the Metro’s is being lost due to leaks and illegal use. Listen to the news and you frequently hear how smaller towns have run out of water! Bigger city sections are left without water for hours and even days because of burst pipes. Raw sewerage is flowing into rivers that flow to dams, where cities and town get their water from!
The overall total for non-revenue water could, in fact, reach tens of billions per year. These losses must be addressed. But this is not the only challenge facing the sector. We are heading toward a crisis in terms of water treatment plant operation, maintenance and upgrades. In the water sector, the resource, treatment and distribution components are equally important — if one area is neglected, the entire system is impacted. Much of South Africa’s water infrastructure is in a dilapidated state. The worst off are the treatment plants — especially those for wastewater treatment. This is a source of contamination of the rivers and complicates the overall water treatment processes.
Serious problems have developed with the asbestos and cement water pipes that were laid in the 1940s. Water has started to erode the cement in the pipes. This leads to small municipalities losing, on average, 72.5% of the water pumped, according to a recent survey published by government. An average of 36.8% (1.58 billion cubic metres) of SA’s water pumped by municipalities is lost. This is equivalent to the yearly supply of Rand Water, SA’s largest water utility. Pipes generally have a lifespan of 50 years. There has been very little replacement being done in smaller municipalities; and in Johannesburg, there’s a 10-year backlog.
Water shortages affect every facet of our society. Recently most parts of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape were without water and Rhodes University was at the point of closing down due to health problems. A broken dam pump, which is more that 60 years old, cut off the running water to them. In 2013 towns such as Kimberly, Krugersdorp, Rustenburg, Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein struggled with water shortages. The ongoing protests for service delivery that are sweeping across our country are a testimony to the dire conditions of our water supply. The problem has escalated to civil unrest, which often turns violent and requires police intervention.
On the 15th September 2014 several suburbs in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni experienced water cuts. The situation happened when a power outage at the Eikenhof pumping station meant water could not be pumped into reservoir. It became difficult for the water levels to stabilise during periods of high demand. This resulted in Rand Water being unable to pump water to some of our reservoirs, supplying mainly western and south of Johannesburg, parts of the west rand and Ekurhuleni. The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality dispatched roving water tankers to all areas experiencing low water pressure and water cuts. Our natural assumption would be to ask why are there no backup generators to keep the water flowing. The logical answer is that there are no funds to finance this strategic water point.
The demand for JoJo tanks has exploded in the past five years as municipality services begin to breakdown. JoJo has now set up eight factories across South Africa to meet the demand. Most municipalities simply do not have the technical knowledge to maintain the infrastructure. Of the 230 municipalities 79 have no civil engineers or technicians and only 45 have civil engineers. There are more civil engineers serving the zoo infrastructure in Auckland, New Zealand than 86% of South African municipalities according to Allyson Lawless, a former president of the SA Institute of Civil Engineering (Saice) and the author of Numbers and Needs – Addressing Imbalances in the Civil Engineering Profession.
The skills crisis is blamed on the massive exodus of municipal engineers over the past 20 years. Out of every seven engineers who worked for municipalities in the 1980s, only one remained, according to Dr Chris Herold, an engineer and owner of Umfula Wempilo Consulting. This was partly due to frustration and disillusionment among municipal engineers over political appointments in management positions with supervision over technical functions. Many engineers emigrated, and the private sector also lured municipal engineers away with big salaries. Fewer and fewer technicians have been trained.
Government has recently launched a strategic integration project specifically to address these delays, accelerate water licenses and build programmes, as well as put better sanitation in place. But about R50 billion must still be found to finance the project, and there are also concerns about whether government has the necessary expertise to carry out its plans. In the water affairs department, where water infrastructure is planned, there are only seven engineers among the 48 senior managers. In May 2013, only 78 of the 280 civil engineering posts in the department were filled, and about 47% of the chief engineers will retire over the next five years, according to figures from Saice.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has said South Africa will experience “great water stress” in the next 15 years, especially in inland cities. South Africa only gets an average of about 520mm of rain each year, compared with 920mm in Malawi, 1 060mm in Kenya and 2 170mm in India.
We can no longer remain in denial. Water shedding is an inevitable reality and we need to prepare for the worst. On the larger scale of things you can implement systems that will reduce your water footprint and demand on the water infrastructure. You can install water saving shower heads, use cistern devices, convert your garden into an indigenous garden, take shorter showers and sweep your drive way instead of washing it down. Install a rain water harvesting system that collects water into tanks during the rainy season. Conserving water also means that you conserve electricity as it takes thousands of megawatts of electricity to bring water from the Lesotho highlands to Johannesburg and surrounding cities and towns.
Ideally though, you would like to own your own water supply system. You would like to have that peace of mind that you will always have water on tap and you no longer need to rely on municipal water. You can also determine the quality of the water you drink. Drilling a borehole is one way of achieving this. A borehole will not only provide water for your garden but also for household use. A borehole is an investment for the future. It adds to the value of your home. Considering current water tariffs your borehole can pay for itself within 3 – 4 years, not taking into account tariff escalations and the fact that there are also sewage charges based on the amount of water that you use. Using a borehole reduces all these costs. It also reduces your impact on the water infrastructure and the energy infrastructure. Not only will you reduce your water footprint but you will also go a long way to reducing your carbon footprint.
The Reserve Bank has warned of austerity measure in 2017. This will mean that funding for an already stressed water and electricity system will be compromised. Less money will be spent on these services while demand will rise exponentially as these measures will lead to greater unemployment and poverty.
The water crisis is not only limited to South Africa. It stretches across the globe. Often it is the underlying cause of wars and conflict particularly in the Middle East. As populations grow, so does the demand for water and sanitation. Millions of people have no access to clean water and sanitation. In developing countries the leading cause of death in children below the age of five is directly attributed to lack of access to clean water and sanitation. In many rural arrears in South Africa and squatter camps the situation is as dire. We can no longer depend on a reliable water supply. We need to act now, reduce our demand on the water infrastructure and secure our water supply.
Water shedding is future reality. Now is the time to secure your water supply needs?
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