It has been brewing for decades, but like the long-neglected electricity system, the long-neglected water supply, treatment and reticulation systems are now collapsing. Best be prepared.
When electricity loadshedding first started, 15 years ago, when Thabo Mbeki was still president of South Africa, I wrote a blog post arguing that water would be next.
I pointed out that much of the reticulation infrastructure (pipes and stuff) exceeded its design life, little new bulk water supply (dams and stuff) was being constructed, that water treatment facilities (sewerage plants and stuff) were frequently beset with capacity problems as the population grew, that water sources (rivers and stuff) were increasingly polluted, and that water infrastructure (all of the stuff) was run by government entities no better, smarter, more resourceful, or less corrupt than those that ran electricity infrastructure.
The commentariat lambasted me as a fear-monger who would say anything to make the ANC in particular, and governments in general, look bad. I countered that neither the ANC in particular, nor governments in general, needed my help to look bad.
Almost a decade later, in 2015, I wrote an in-depth research article for Good Governance Africa, which was then a division of the Institute for Race Relations, entitled ‘Fixing leaky pipes and management holes’.
It was widely read and discussed, and the term ‘water shedding’ entered circulation among opposition politicians and the media around this time. Unfortunately, like my 2007 blog post, it has fallen through the cracks of the internet, and is lost to posterity.
In this article – this time with some more research heft behind it – I again pointed out that South Africa’s water reticulation system was so poor that fully a quarter of drinkable water was lost to leaks. This was two or three times the typical level of losses in countries with well-functioning water supply systems.
Water scarcity is almost always a regional phenomenon, yet there is limited infrastructure available to pipe water from wet regions to regions in deficit, when they need it. In addition, bulk water systems had failed to keep pace with the country’s growing population, and some towns already regularly ran out of water.
All of this meant that South Africa was poorly equipped to guarantee the population’s water needs, not because South Africa is a ‘water-scarce country’, or suddenly more vulnerable to droughts, but primarily because of poor management, deteriorating and poorly maintained infrastructure, and inadequate provision for new demand as the population and economy grows.
South Africa has considerably more water than is commonly claimed. Even in its arid regions, there are large freshwater aquifers that remain largely unused. Only about 20% of the flow of our rivers is abstracted. At least 20% must be maintained as an ecological reserve, and 14% is lost to evaporation. That leaves 46% of our river flow as headroom, should we need some of it.
If South Africa, or any part of it, ever appears to be ‘water scarce’, due to a drought or something, it is not because there isn’t enough water to be had. It is solely because the government has built inadequate water infrastructure to cope with entirely predictable weather cycles and inevitable population growth.
That all my ‘fear-mongering’ and ‘anti-ANC propaganda’ about the water supply has come to pass, should no longer be in any doubt.
I warned that water treatment plants were not keeping up with demand, and cited stats from what is now the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to support my claims. For the first time since 2013, the Department has updated these statistics in its Green Drop National Report 2022 (covering wastewater treatment plants) and its Blue Drop Progress Report 2022 (covering drinking water quality).
Although the reports are excellent, their content is disturbing.
Failing wastewater plants
Only 23 wastewater systems (2.7%) out of 850 qualified for Green Drop Certification, down from 60 in 2013. On the opposite end of the scale, a total of 334 (39%) of municipal wastewater systems were identified to be in a critical state in 2021, compared to 248 (29%) in 2013.
Broken down by province, Limpopo came last, with 78% of its systems in critical state, followed by the Northern Cape (76%), North West (69%), Free State (67%), Mpumalanga (43%), Eastern Cape (39%), Gauteng (15%), KwaZulu Natal (14%), and Western Cape (11%).
The Department of Public Works, which also operates wastewater treatment plants, performed even worse than the worst of the provinces, with 102 (89%) out of its 115 systems identified to be in a critical state, compared to 84% in 2013.
‘The most prominent risks were observed at treatment level, and pointed to works that exceeded their design capacity, dysfunctional processes, and equipment (especially disinfection), lack of flow monitoring, and effluent and sludge non-compliance,’ the report said. Echoing my own warnings going back 15 years, it continued: ‘This reflects the increased demand placed on existing collection and treatment infrastructure due to expansion driven by population and economic growth.’
The Department appears to believe that merely publishing such an audit report will ‘incentivise’ poorly performing plants to get their act in order. They call the Green Drop certification programme ‘incentive-based regulation’.
The theory goes that a pat on the back and a certificate to hang in the manager’s office is supposed to get everyone to pull up their socks and start delivering the service they failed to deliver for years, or even decades.
Like me, researchers Kevin Winter and Kirsty Carden, who laid out the consequences of poor wastewater treatment in an article for The Conversation, are not so optimistic.
After all, the very same ‘weak management, …lack of competent and experienced technical staff and very low levels of revenue collection’ that collapsed the wastewater management systems in the first place are now tasked with turning the facilities around. It simply won’t happen, even if Noddy badges are up for grabs.
The Blue Drop Progress Report is equally alarming about the state of South Africa’s drinking water supplies. Fewer than half of the systems (48%) were found to present low risk to consumers (a number the DWS declared itself to be encouraged by). Almost a quarter (23%) pose a critical risk.
In terms of water quality, only 40% of water supply systems achieved microbiological water quality compliance and 23% achieved chemical water quality compliance. Quality isn’t even monitored consistently: only 66% of water supply systems have adequate microbiological monitoring compliance and a mere 17% have adequate chemical monitoring in place.
You could be drinking anything, so it would be wise to sterilise the water you and your family drink with a stiff dram of whisky. (In fact, that is why mediaeval times featured beer and wine for all occasions: the water was too high-risk to drink.)
If the Department happens to find a water supply that fails either microbiological or chemical water quality compliance, the proposed ‘remedial action’ isn’t to stop providing dirty water, but to issue ‘boil water’ or ‘water quality’ advisories for biological and chemical contamination, respectively.
‘In general, technical skills is (sic) poor throughout the country,’ the report brags, and ‘only 33% of supply systems in the country have Water Safety Plans and 9% have comprehensive Water Safety Plans with all required components including management approval, risk assessment, a risk-based monitoring program and implementation of corrective measures’.
Luckily, these piss-poor numbers ‘are of serious concern’ to the DWS. The same department, that is, that let things deteriorate to mediaeval standards in the first place. No doubt all those technically unskilled DWS people will – in the hope of winning a Blue Drop certificate – pull finger and clean up our drinking water within a few decades.
Get used to it
The South African government has made zero progress on the electricity supply in the 15 years since load-shedding started, and the 24 years since the first alarm bells were sounded.
I will go out on a limb and predict that it will make no progress in improving South Africa’s water management either, unless and until the ANC government is booted from power.
In many places, the entire capacity for running water infrastructure needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. This will be a monumental challenge even if a relatively effective and less corrupt government takes power. It is an insurmountable challenge for the government we have today.
Just like diesel generator and solar panel companies have been booming in the last 15 years, I expect borehole drilling and water filter companies will offer exceptional returns in the next decade or two.