25 March 2023 | 02:03 PM

When crises collide: Water is South Africa’s next ‘perfect storm’

Key Takeaways

  • In an already water-scarce country, demand outstrips supply, while water treatment plants falter and the country’s climate continues to warm at unprecedented — and deadly — rates.
  • After more than a decade of neglect, mismanagement and corruption, the country’s water infrastructure can no longer supply many communities with reliable access to safe drinking water.
  • Wastewater treatment plants, meanwhile, dump raw sewage into waterways, likely fuelling upticks in disease. And Eskom’s decline is hastening the gathering clouds.

South Africa is, by some accounts, already “out” of water.

In an already water-scarce country, demand outstrips supply, while water treatment plants falter and the country’s climate continues to warm at unprecedented — and deadly — rates.

A perfect storm, experts warn, is coming.

During the first decade of South Africa’s democracy, 13.4 million people gained access to basic water services.

But a tap in a home or in the yard is no guarantee that clean water regularly flows through it.

In some North West and Limpopo communities, dry pipes briefly spurt to life at 3 am.

Residents who do not set an alarm to collect water, go without.

In the Free State, a good storm can send desperate families scrambling to put out buckets to catch the rain. Children will even scoop up pooling water with their hands to add to the haul.

Meanwhile, the water tankers brought in by government to fill gaps in service delivery in the province have become big business, the Mail & Guardian reported last year.

A week of scarcity and excess

This week, the tankers appeared for the first time in many Johannesburg neighborhoods.

This, after loadshedding felled one of the city’s major pumping stations. The city has experienced frequent water outages in the last year, although not as seemingly widespread as this week’s cuts.

Not coincidentally, the water trucks arrived on the coattails of a heat wave.

In the Northern Cape, temperatures above 40 degrees led to the deaths of at least five farm workers from suspected heat stroke.

“The high temperatures were all the way to Springbok, and right up to Upington,” one worker who survived told News24.

The week’s headlines are a harbinger of what’s to come. South Africa’s demand for water now outstrips its supply.

Water, of course, can be reused — but after more than a decade of neglect, mismanagement and corruption, the country’s water infrastructure can no longer supply many communities with reliable access to safe drinking water.

Wastewater treatment plants, meanwhile, dump raw sewage into waterways, likely fuelling upticks in disease.

And Eskom’s decline is hastening the gathering clouds.

South Africa uses, loses and pollutes more water than it has

Experts have spent more than a decade measuring the water South Africa has and comparing it to what it needs to fill the nation’s kettles, water its crops, and mine its riches.

By 2002, what South Africa used in water was already outstripping what it had, says Dr Anthony Turton, professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State.

In 2003, scientists believed South Africa possessed 53 billion cubic meters of water. Today, Turton says better modeling and declining rainfall have placed that figure at about 49 billion cubic meters.

“After all considerations, it was discovered that we had allocated about 98% of all the water available in the country. Effectively we became water deficit in 2002,” explains Turton.

South Africa is transitioning to a fundamentally water-constrained economy, Turton warns.

Meanwhile, sewage management systems are collapsing, and the country threatens to outstrip its capacity to process safe drinking water.

He concludes: “The South African water sector is entering the early phase of a ‘perfect storm’ driven by the convergence of significant drivers over which no [one] individual has any control.”


Already water-scarce, experts say South Africa is becoming drier — and dangerously hotter. Demand for water long outstripped supply, they say. South Africa is a decade behind investing in technologies for recycling water and recovering it from waste, says the University of Free State Professor Dr. Anthony Turton (Supplied)

But when it comes to water, it is not just about how much you have — it’s about how good it is.

And what South Africa has, it is not very good at safeguarding.

In the Department of Water and Sanitation’s latest drinking water report, more than 60% of water supply systems did not meet water quality standards – including those that didn’t even bother to report.

Meanwhile, the pipes that ferry water from plants or dams to taps are so poorly maintained that experts estimate that 40% or more of water in Johannesburg and eThekwini is lost to leaks and theft before it ever reaches consumers.

“South Africa is a water-scarce country, so we’re obviously affected by the semi-arid to arid climate,” explains Dr Anja du Plessis, a University of South Africa water expert.

“But what we’re seeing now is what’s called ‘economic water scarcity’.

“In places like Johannesburg… you have the water supplies, however, you are experiencing shortages because of dilapidated infrastructure.”

She continues: “[That] infrastructure is now collapsing under loadshedding.”

We drink water ‘processed from a sewage-contaminated river through technology that is broken’

Similarly, the most recent audits of wastewater treatment plants found that 100 were so poorly run that they posed a serious risk to public health and the environment.

For instance, the South African Human Rights Commission found that broken Gauteng wastewater treatment plants have dumped so much raw sewage into the Vaal River that the waterway is now polluted beyond any acceptable measure.

The commission noted that raw sewage from these same plants had also found its way into nearby schools and homes.

And our health turns on the health of rivers like the Vaal or the Orange, Turton says.

“We used to dilute our pollution into the watercourses,” he says. “But we have so overloaded the rivers with 5 billion liters of sewage daily that we have lost our dilution capacity.”

He continues: “Today, the average citizen drinks water from the tap that has been processed from a sewage-contaminated river through technology that is broken and unable to safely process sewage to drinking quality standards. This affects everyone.”

Unpurified river water in many parts of South Africa is used to water crops.

A 2021 study funded by the Water Research Council found high levels of bacteria transmitted in the waste of animals and humans on surveyed fresh vegetables in Cape Town and Tshwane.

The findings held true whether vegetables were purchased in supermarkets or from hawkers.

Pipes for jobs

Efforts to fix South Africa’s water system have been hampered by weak local capacity and deep corruption.

Municipalities, which Du Plessis say bear the biggest responsibility for clean water provision in the country, do not have the ability to fix it. Each year, budgets to safeguard water supplies go unspent.

“The inability to spend results in the misfortune of the current aging infrastructure,” writes Department of Water and Sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu in the department’s latest annual report. “Where some of the infrastructure may not be old, the dismal and inadequate maintenance, particularly of municipal infrastructure, remains an ‘Achilles Heel.’”

When municipalities can spend money to maintain or expand infrastructure, the department notes, projects can be waylaid by protests by local business forums and communities demanding jobs before projects can be completed.

The department flags maintenance backlogs of more than R35.5-billion.

Water in a hotter world

The average annual temperature in South Africa has increased by at least one degree during the last 50 years, almost twice the global average, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Environmental Research.

Temperatures in the country are projected to continue to rise at a greater rate than the global average.

A child born in the next 20 years could grow old in a country that is up to 6 degrees hotter than average temperatures nearly a century before, the study warns.

And heat, as the nation saw this past week, can be deadly.

South African Medical Research Council’s Dr. Caradee Wright warns the recent deaths of farm workers in the Northern Cape should be a warning.

Emerging research also suggests that hotter temperatures may be linked with some types of birth defects, particularly holes in fetuses’ hearts.

And as more homes go without steady access to water, the public health threats only grow, Wright warns.

“When you don’t have continuous water supply, you store water,” she says, “and when you store water, you immediately start to run into trouble.”

In many homes, families store water in open-air containers, often dipping in the same shared cup to collect water. With each cupful, new germs are introduced into bins that are rarely cleaned.

In an environment like this, diarrheal disease — which can be deadly in small children, the elderly, and people with weaker immune systems — can spread like wildfire.

And the country’s health system — like its water infrastructure — may not be prepared to cope with new waves of disease that accompany a hotter, more water-scarce world.

“Our healthcare systems and other structures that we have in place are not fully functioning for the majority of the country,” she says. “We’re starting from a bad baseline, and I can’t see how we’re going to cope.”

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Aisha Abdool Karim

Aisha is a freelance science and health reporter. She is joining the amaB team to work on a project about water and sanitation. Aisha’s passion for long-form narrative and investigative journalism was sparked while doing her master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. After graduating in 2018, she returned to South Africa and began working as a general beat reporter for the Daily Maverick. Aisha joined the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in 2020 to focus on science reporting. During her time there, she covered the COVID-19 pandemic extensively — from fact-checking harmful medical misinformation to unpacking the science behind vaccine development. Aisha’s special interests include analysing health systems and in-depth coverage of public health issues and infectious diseases. She also loves spreadsheets and digging through data.

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