The research team that compiled the government’s latest State of the Environment report has cautioned that the province may be “starved of water” for an extended period because of the risk of drought and the failure of an ageing water infrastructure.
This is one of the warnings issued by a team of researchers who compiled the Outlook Report 2017 released this week.
The 155-page document was commissioned by the Gauteng Department of Economic Development, Agriculture and Rural Development.
“The possibility exists that prolonged drought could coincide with a major infrastructure failure resulting in potentially severe water shortages in the province,” it declares.
Gauteng is critically dependent on pumped water. It is estimated that water lost from the system because of deterioration in the infrastructure is as high as 37% of the total water supply in the province. Yet the water tariff is inadequate to ensure the system is properly maintained, says the report.
Ageing infrastructure, an absence of large-scale capabilities for harvesting rainwater and increased climate variability into the future are listed as Gauteng’s three key challenges for water supply.
Unpredictable climate conditions are an ongoing concern. The report predicts generally drier conditions with drought likely to become more frequent and more intense.
Water scarcity, land scarcity, and the quality of human life and ecological systems are identified as potential environmental “tipping points with the likelihood of further deterioration” over time.
Environmental problems in Gauteng, the report states, are underpinned by population growth, consumer behaviour, and, in some cases, changing natural conditions. As much as 55% of the province has been irreversibly altered by urbanisation, mining and agricultural practices.
“The 2017 report shows that although Gauteng has performed well economically, this has been achieved at the cost of the province’s natural resources,” the department says.
“Unacceptably high levels of pollution still characterise the region. Urgent action must be taken to correct activities and rehabilitate riparian systems.”
While Gauteng remains the “best-performing province” as far as water purification for potable water provision goes, a “dysfunctional and malfunctioning wastewater treatment infrastructure, as well as diffuse release of effluent, such as from unserviced settlements”, require serious intervention to reverse the degradation of rivers, wetlands and dams.
“In the last several years there have been a growing number of examples where the water supplied is not fit for its intended purpose. For example, water sourced from Hartbeespoort Dam, which is supplied to the residents in the Hartbeespoort area, is now considered unsafe for human consumption”.
There are many similar examples, especially in informal settlements, where the “water quality is questionable or unsafe”.
The research team found an “overwhelming negative trend” in the condition of water resources in Gauteng arising from poor and irresponsible management of human activities.
“This threatens socio-ecological systems, which are “all inextricably linked to water”.
The report notes a worrying rise in faecal coliform concentrations since the last environmental report in 2011, with most samples falling within the “not acceptable” to “poor” category.
Overall, there is a potentially dangerous nutrient loading problem in dams in the province and growing evidence that water availability is becoming “increasingly serious” in Gauteng.
“With the good summer rains that fell in early 2017, water restrictions have been lifted. However, this will result in a continued cycle of drought and surplus availability of surface water resources, a cycle which needs to be managed,” the report says.
Gauteng has 178 boreholes that are being monitored. “Deeper boreholes have to be created to access the water, suggesting the aquifer is being depleted faster than it can be replenished.
“This is extremely concerning as borehole water is often considered as an alternative to surface water resources, and it is used rather irresponsibly.”
There has also been a decline in the water data recorded.
“There are 921 monitoring points within Gauteng. Of these monitoring stations, only 367 monitoring points are actively monitored by the Department of Water and Sanitation.”
The researchers point out that while the treatment of acid mine drainage is “occurring at a satisfactory level”, interim crisis alleviation measures to deal with it may result in further deterioration in quality.
To protect the environment, the department says it is expanding the provincial conservation estate, implementing stringent water conservation and water demand management. It is working to protect natural ecosystems to enhance climate change adaptation, and helping municipalities with the roll-out of additional air quality monitoring stations.