Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister
Every day, there are reminders that we remain one of the most unequal countries in the world. This inequality can also be seen in terms of consumption levels of basic network services, where access to water ranks as one area in which inequality is possibly greatest.
Driving to the North West from Johannesburg, for example, one passes homes of less than four people with sparkling swimming pools, even in winter, whilst down the road, thousands of households walk with buckets to receive water from communal standpipes. And as you move to the countryside, the gaps become even more stark, with historically white farming areas having green growth from irrigation while poor and black small holdings hardly able to survive.
The reality is that in our metropolitan areas, 16% of our households have inadequate access to food, and 12% of our households have water outages of over 15 days in the past financial year. Nationally, 75 of our most financially distressed municipalities cannot afford to pay for their bulk water supply. This reality must change.
Water security is a critical issue, but the reality, though, is that South Africa faces major challenges of water scarcity. This is due to physical limits – low average rainfall, hot climate – and poor management and inefficient use. The pressure on already limited water supply is expected to increase sharply due to changes in water cycles caused by erratic rainfall. Based on current demand projections, the water deficit confronting the country could be between 2.7 and 3.8 billion cubic metres, a gap of approximately 17%, by 2030. The South African water sector must take bold steps to adopt a ‘new normal’ to head off the projected water gap.
Overall, the delivery of water and sanitation services in South Africa is a concurrent national and local function. At a national level, the Department of Water and Sanitation has the broad mandate of developing, protecting, conserving and allocating water resources and regulation of water services and water use. Municipalities must develop and manage the water distribution system.
Post-1994 governments in South Africa have done incredibly well in redressing the effect of apartheid and colonialism. Hardly a day goes by without the Minister and his deputies of Water and Sanitation criss-crossing the country, driving the delivery of water and sanitation, particularly to communities who have never had access to water. These engagements reinforces the need to keep communities informed about every step in the delivery process, because water and sanitation often take well over a decade to get tangible results.
In 2006, municipalities supplied water to just over nine million consumer units, expanding to 13.8 million in 2019. This represents an average annual growth rate of 3.2%, outstripping the national population growth rate of 1.5%.
In 2019, 88.2% of households across South Africa had access to piped water in their homes. This represents an additional 5.3 million households compared to 2002. Despite these improvements, the percentage of households with access to water declined in five provinces between 2002 and 2019.
The largest decline was observed in Mpumalanga (-5,3%), Limpopo (-3%) and Free State (-3,7%).
Sustaining water supply requires high levels of maintenance, monitoring illegal connections and the collection of payment for water services. Households in Limpopo (56,6%) and Mpumalanga (54.4%) reported the most water supply interruptions, while Western Cape (4.6%) and Gauteng (9.5%) experienced the least interruptions. Approximately a quarter (25.8%) of South African households reported some problems with water supply in 2019.
There has been a decline in the total number of households who pay for the piped water they receive. The proportion of households who reported paying for water has been declining steadily over the past decade, dropping from 67.3% in 2008 to only 44.6% in 2019. This figure is concerning as municipalities rely in income received from services to fund their maintenance and upgrade –except where the household is eligible for Free Basic Water. In this case, the municipality is funded for these from National Treasury.
Many municipalities are very innovative in trying to address these complex challenges. Some municipalities have moved away from single use infrastructure so that, for example, bulk water pipes allow for turbines generating electricity; other examples include using landfill gas to converted methane gas into electricity.
eThekwini’s engagements in 1999 with Mondi Paper to recycle wastewater led to a concession for the production of high quality reclaimed “grey” water, which could be sold to industrial customers for use in industrial processes. Importantly, this freed up water for approximately 300,000 Durban residents in areas like Umlazi, and allowed eThekwini to delay capital investment in a recycling plant while creating a long-term revenue stream for the municipality.
While the general quality of potable water, particularly in the large cities, remains of a high standard, there are serious water quality challenges in many parts of the country. These require urgent solutions, including dealing with corruption, which often underlies these problems.
The reality is that solving our water challenges require an all of society approach. On average, our domestic consumption of water is over 60 litres per person per day, higher than global benchmarks.
Some of this is due to leakages and losses such as non-revenue water, but does demonstrate the need for households with easy access to water to make a real effort to reduce our consumption.
Everyone must realise that South Africa is highly susceptible to drought. All municipalities have been in some way affected by drought over the past 30 years, with the period between 1981 and 2018 being the driest periods. The northern, central and western parts of the country are most vulnerable.
In the 2022 period, a significant amount of rainfall fell. However, some areas are still short of water, and many of the country’s water resources are still under pressure due to unsustainably high water use, pollution, a shortage of funding and the collapse of municipal infrastructure.
And so, the next time it rains, take time out to realise that we are a water scarce nation, and we must all help to solve the problem.
*Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister are Directors at City Insight
**The views expressed are not necessarily the views of Independent Media or IOL