S.Africa: Cities: 40% of purified water is lost to pipe leaks

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Water losses, mostly caused by leaking or broken pipes and infrastructure, are untenably high in major cities. The biggest loser is Durban at 58%. At a national level, the government’s most recent water balance sheet puts non-revenue water losses at 47.4%, with pipe leaks calculated at 40.8%.

Almost a decade after the government declared a nationwide “war on leaks” campaign, the volume of water loss is getting worse. Nearly half the country’s purified water supply is now lost to leaks, theft or non-payment.

The latest benchmarking report on water losses in eight of the country’s big cities suggests that the worst culprit is Durban, where more than 58% of tap water supply is classified as non-revenue water.

But Johannesburg is hot on its heels at 48.2%, followed by Gqeberha (48%), Bloemfontein (46.4%), East London (37.7%), Pretoria (32.6%), Ekurhuleni (30.9%) and Cape Town (29.4%).

At a national level, the government’s most recent water balance sheet puts non-revenue water losses at 47.4%, with pipe leaks calculated at 40.8%.

Quite apart from the staggering waste of a vital resource in a water-scarce country, the increasing volume of water lost from leaking pipes means that most big cities are also forfeiting billions of rands in revenue streams that could be used to subsidise other municipal services. The money could be used to repair the collapsing pipelines and infrastructure blamed for the increasingly frequent water cutoffs or erratic supplies in towns and cities across the country.

Instead, the government is under increasing pressure to spend billions of rands on building new dams, even in other countries, to meet the growing demand in big cities, and municipalities are also ramping up utility bills to make up for their lost revenue.

This pressure includes the construction of the R39-billion Polihali Dam in Lesotho to supply Gauteng and a further R20-billion for a new dam in the uMkhomazi River in KwaZulu-Natal to supply Durban.

Though non-revenue water is a term that can include metering errors, water that is stolen or not paid for, the major component of non-revenue water is from physical leaks from broken or damaged pipes and infrastructure. The monthly 6,000-litre free basic water allowance per household is a constitutional right and is therefore zero-rated and excluded from non-revenue calculations.

For example, losses from actual water leaks in the eThekwini Municipality are now about 46%, and real losses from leaks at a national level have been calculated by the Department of Water and Sanitation at more than 40%.

At a provincial level, non-revenue water losses sit at between 46% and 51% in eight provinces. The notable exception is the Western Cape at just 26.9%.

Non-revenue water losses in some of the smaller municipalities are also through the roof. For example, at the end of 2023, these losses exceeded 93% and 85% for the Zululand and uMkhanyakude district municipalities, respectively.

Urban consumption
However, such heavy losses are almost insignificant on a volumetric basis, as the lion’s share of the massive national water waste happens in the big cities, which collectively consume between 65% and 70% of all purified tap water supplies.

On a sobering note, Water Research Commission senior manager Jay Bhagwan points out that Gauteng, South Africa’s economic heartland, has almost no local water resources of its own, and it is increasingly reliant on massive water transfers from the Thukela River in KwaZulu-Natal or the giant Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

“The national water cup is finite,” he said. “It’s high time for the Department of Water and Sanitation to say to municipalities if you want more water, fix the leaks first.”

Bhagwan acknowledges that the urban water demand is growing rapidly as more people migrate to Gauteng and other urban centres from rural areas, but he cautions: “The cup is only so big. It is not acceptable if you continue along this trajectory of providing more water to service municipal leaks. It costs much more to build new dams compared with fixing leaks.”

Since Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu’s appointment in August 2021, the department has started to crack the whip to force municipalities to reduce losses. But with national elections looming, it remains uncertain whether Mchunu’s latest national water-saving drive will translate into immediate action.

This table shows the percentage of tap water being lost in large cities across the country. RW is revenue water, which is the amount of water purchased by cities, and NRW is non-revenue water, which is what is being lost in various ways. (Source: Department of Water and Sanitation)

Durban leaking revenue
Late last year, the department issued a directive to KwaZulu-Natal’s biggest water utility, uMngeni-uThukela Water, to curb its water abstraction from the uMngeni River system by 8.5%. The utility’s major customer is Durban, where taps have run dry for several thousand residents over recent months.

But a senior insider attributes this lack of water to operational failures in the municipal supply scheme rather than the directive to lower the volumes abstracted from the Midmar, Albert Falls and Inanda dams.

At a meeting with the Department of Water and Sanitation in Durban on 27 March, eThekwini water department engineer Prathna Gopi said a target had been set to reduce Durban’s non-revenue water losses by 15% over the next three years. This promise will be scrutinised closely, considering that the city’s losses have risen steadily from 33% a decade ago to more than 58% now.

At the meeting, eThekwini’s ambitious pledge to curb water losses was tempered by a senior national water department official who noted that, measured on a monetary basis, current losses from water leaks in Durban were valued at about R7.6-billion a year in lost revenue for the municipality.

The official noted that the municipality buys about 1,100 million litres a day from uMngeni-uThukela Water. Based on the purchase price of just more than R10 a kilolitre, the 46% losses from leaks translate to about R155-million a month, or about R1.8-billion a year in direct, wasted costs.

However, the municipality marks up the purchase costs considerably for Durban’s domestic and commercial customers. So, based on a mid-level customer tariff of R42 per kilolitre, the 46% losses add up to nearly R638-million a month – or R7.6-billion a year – in lost municipal revenue. That’s more than 10% of the city’s total operating and capital budget for 2024/25.

Rand Water under pressure
In Gauteng, Rand Water is under similar pressure to curb its abstraction levels from the Vaal River supply system (which mostly depends on water transfers from Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal rivers).

In its latest five-year business plan, Rand Water admits that it is already exceeding the volume of water it is allowed to abstract from the Vaal system, and new supplies from the Polihali transfer scheme in Lesotho will only come online in 2028. As a result, any further “excessive consumption” by cities it supplies was likely to result in water restrictions to ensure a sustainable supply until Polihali provides additional water.

What remains unclear, however, is what strategies municipalities in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal will use to respond to the looming water restrictions. In a presentation to municipal engineers in 2016, senior South African water engineer Ronnie McKenzie cautioned against simply cutting off water supplies at certain times of the day to reduce consumption.

McKenzie, a former chairperson of the International Water Association’s specialist group on water loss, warned that it had become common practice in developing nations to cut off water supplies for a few hours a day to save limited supplies.

But this seemingly cheap and effective solution carries major risks of long-term damage to infrastructure, and potential public health risks such as cholera and typhoid.

He explained that, when water supply is switched off and on frequently, the sudden changes in pressure can cause underground pipes to shift or crack, thereby damaging expensive infrastructure.

This strategy also creates an added danger to public health because sewage bacteria in the soil can enter cracked tap water pipes when they are depressurised.

During the 2016 drought, some municipal water suppliers had resorted to intermittent supply (cutoffs) to reduce water consumption, but the damage caused by this “quick and easy” method could take years to undo.

Instead, McKenzie suggested that municipalities should rather reduce the pressure levels in tap water pipelines to ensure a continuous, albeit slower, 24-hour water supply.

More recently, there have been indications that some municipalities are still opting to switch supplies off and on at certain times.

In a report in December, the Department of Water and Sanitation noted that, on average, KwaZulu-Natal residents only received water for 5.54 days a week in 2023. Customers in the Ugu District Municipality only received water for 4.13 days a week.

So, what are some of the possible solutions to breathing new life into the government’s stuttering “war on leaks” campaign?

What can be done?
A senior water engineer, who did not wish to be named because of continuing work relations with government departments, said the solutions did not require rocket science, satellites or artificial intelligence.

“It basically boils down to digging holes in the ground, and fixing the pipes properly as part of a properly planned and properly funded programme managed by skilled engineers.

“We have been talking about reducing non-revenue water for over 20 years, but it just keeps going up rather than down. It’s all just bloody talk,” he lamented.

“Yet during the ‘Day Zero’ crisis, Cape Town managed to reduce its water consumption by 50% without resorting to intermittent water supply cutoffs. That just shows what can be achieved when a city has its back against the wall.”

A further example of what can be achieved comes from the Drakenstein District Municipality (Paarl and Wellington area), which reduced its non-revenue water from 35% to less than 10% after a concerted campaign.

The municipality’s senior water manager, André Kowalewski, acknowledges that non-revenue water losses have crept up to about 17% recently, but it remains one of the best examples of efficient water management in the country. DM

Source: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2024-04-06-billions-down-the-sa-big-city-revenue-drain-as-40-of-purified-water-is-lost-to-pipe-leaks/?utm_source=Sailthru

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