Gauteng must avoid any “Day Zero” scenario

Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town last year. | AP

Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town last year. | AP

Published Nov 19, 2019


Gauteng – as South Africa’s economic, financial and government hub – must avoid any “Day Zero” scenario if it is to ensure the sustainability and inclusive growth of the country’s national economy.

But water security cannot be achieved in isolation, reads the final draft of the Water Security Perspective for the Gauteng City-Region.

“Farmers in the catchment areas of the dams that supply bulk water can affect its quality; municipal technicians determine the reliability of the distribution networks that bring water to household taps and keep wastewater drains clear; water users themselves, in their homes and places of work, decide whether scarce water resources are wasted or polluted.” 

Last year, at the request of Gauteng Premier David Makhura, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) and a team of water specialists from Pegasys Consulting and the Wits School of Governance undertook the project to understand urban water challenges in the Gauteng City-Region, what longterm water security entails and how it can be achieved.

The perspective by Mike Muller, Barbara Schreiner, Abri Vermeulen, Gillian Maree and Traci Reddy, details how “a failure anywhere in the system can interrupt services and compromise water security” with impoverished communities particularly vulnerable. In Gauteng, the achievement of water security is a “never-ending challenge”, requiring continued focus and effort.

“Due to delays in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase 2, it’s currently a challenge of particular urgency. Neither demand-side or supply side measures will be sufficient alone. Both must be pursued.

A concern is that the modelling process and the operational forums that should meet twice a year to consider system status have been poorly supported from budget and staffing constraints at the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). 

“The hydrology and climate data has not been updated for 15 years, which means that it may not adequately reflect emerging climate change trends.” While climate change may exacerbate droughts (and floods) the primary challenge is to manage the “normal” climatic variability. 

“As the IVRS (Integrated Vaal River System) is used more intensively and if abstraction goes beyond what are considered to be sustainable levels, the province will be at increasing risk in the event of a long duration multi-year  drought. 

“To address this ‘chronic risk’, supply restrictions will have to be applied even in ‘normal’ years. This point has now been reached ... This means that, until the Lesotho project is completed, Rand Water users (and others supplied from the IVRS) will be at increasing risk of restrictions due to below average rainfall.” 

Gauteng must plan to manage the increasing risk in the short term while establishing a framework that ensures water security and financial and environmental sustainability in the longer term. 

This will be difficult because it can be expected that, as in Cape Town in the past decade, there will be periods of above average rainfall during which dams will be full and the prospect of a crisis will appear unlikely. 

Policy, planning and communication will have to anticipate this “and even take advantage of periods of high rainfall to reinforce messages about the challenges of ensuring water security in SA’s variable climate”. Gauteng’s population is growing at over 3% per year.

“This means that, every year, water needs to be supplied to over 400 000 additional people or to build a new water supply for a city the size of Soweto every five years.” 

At around 300 litres per person per day, Gauteng’s water use is higher than the national average (235 litres), outstripping the world average (173 litres). Gauteng’s use, says the perspective, must be cut to 234 litres per day by 2026. Municipalities must reduce physical losses from their distribution systems as well as unauthorised use that is not paid for.

Social institutions and businesses should reduce their water consumption by introducing efficiency measures and many households must also be encouraged to reduce their water use. 

The perspective notes how the recent drought in the Western Cape demonstrates how vulnerable major urban centres may be to droughts. 

“Unless carefully managed, these can become slow onset disasters that, unlike floods, are not always immediately apparent to the general public.”

It’s time residents adopted a water saving culture

Gauteng residents need to change the way they think about water, says Gillian Maree of the Gauteng City-Region Observatory.

“If we adopt a culture of water savings and see ourselves as custodians of our water resources, then we change the way we engage around water issues. It’s not about restricting what we do. 

It’s about how can we be more water-wise - reusing grey water, planting water-wise indigenous plants, using efficient irrigation and flow restrictors on all our taps.

“It’s not going to change the quality of the showers we have but will use far less water, and it will reduce our municipal account. We will still be living the lifestyle that we want to live.”

While Gauteng’s residents use 300 litres of water a day, in many developed parts of the world, this figure stands at around 180 litres a day.

“You can’t tell me that people in more developed parts of the world, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have a lower quality of life because they use less water.

It’s just about re-framing how we use water. It’s also about how can we incentivise people to manage water more effectively.”

While Maree believes the language of drought is restrictive, she says during periods of drought, “we need to have strong language and punitive measures”. But water security, she says, is not only something to worry about during periods of drought.

“That’s the big lesson from Cape Town. They left it too late and had to have very severe restrictions. 

But if you have a culture of water savings, you are eased into it and give yourselves a buffer.

“If you look at a lot of the cities that experience water shortages, there’s nothing like a crisis to focus your attention. 

Certainly, the situation in Cape Town made us more aware about water than what we have been. But the concern is that when it rains, we forget and go back to the way we’ve been doing things.

“In Gauteng, there is no way of adding more supply. We are, as a city-region, growing more rapidly with more people and a growing economy. 

We need to think more smartly with the water we have. We have enough, if we just learn to use it wisely. There will be increasing pressure because of growth, the demand for water is growing, but we can use what we’ve got.”

According to the Water Security Perspective for Gauteng City-Region, households and communities should:

- Recognise that all the region’s citizens are custodians of water

- As responsible citizens, work with ward councillors and other municipal structures

- Report leaks and damage to infrastructure through vandalism and theft

- Understand their own water consumption patterns, and know where water savings can be achieved

- Install water savings devices

- Fit new buildings and houses with dual flush and low flow fittings

- Do not dump inappropriate materials in sewers and stormwater drains

- Ensure that stormwater does not enter household wastewater drains

The five priority areas of intervention

Reduce water demand: 

Rand Water’s Project 1600 to set water allocation ceilings for municipalities in Gauteng must be supported and implemented. Municipalities will then need to keep consumption within the limits set. 

“They will then have to be much more careful about what they do with the water that Rand Water supplies to city reservoirs,” explains Mike Muller, visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Governance. 

“These measures are necessary because preliminary work on the Polihali Dam (Lesotho Highland Water Project Phase 2) has not begun. 

The earliest it will supply Gauteng is 2026. That means until then we have to live with what we’ve got.” Municipalities must be supported to make investments in water conservation, more efficient water use and encourage and support households and other users to undertake interventions to reduce demand.

Manage variabilty to prepare for drought and/or water scarcity:

The population and economic growth in the Gauteng City-Region means that demand for water is likely to exceed supply in the short term so water scarcity may happen outside of periods of extended drought.   “The goal is to monitor water availability and use so that, if there is a threat of scarcity, users can be alerted and take action.” 

The Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) operating model can give water managers and users early warning of potential shortages. 

“If this functions effectively and its warnings are acted upon, the impact of droughts can be dramatically reduced. The model must be maintained and updated.” 

Alternative water sources: 

This may include groundwater, rainwater, stormwater and reuse of wastewater and treated acid mine drainage (AMD). Treating AMD to potable standards could help make more water available.

“However, the cost of this option in terms of both capital and operating costs needs to be assessed ... “The development of wastewater reuse (based at existing treatment works) must urgently be considered as a supply option. This will also contribute to an improvement of environmental water resource quality.

Limit pollution: 

Poor water quality in the river systems that flow from and through Gauteng put its people and downstream users at risk and may influence water availability. 

Primary water-quality problems are the result of human activity, poor management of sanitation systems, dumping and littering, contributing to the eutrophication of the province’s dams. 

While chemical pollution from mining and industry is declining, it needs to be monitored and controlled. While the four largest municipalities will have to make 95% of the water savings to balance supply and demand, smaller municipalities must focus on improving their wastewater treatment which is a disproportionally large source of pollution. 

Gauteng, too, must insist that the DWS reinstate the Blue, Green and NoDrop monitoring immediately and publish results expeditiously, with full details for each municipality.

Effective institutions: 

These are essential to keep the system running. Many of the water security challenges identified relate to institutional weakness – “and, in some cases, frank failure” – at all levels. 

“There are serious shortcomings in the management of the IVRS; Rand Water has experienced operational problems, which revealed a lack of contingency planning; while the many challenges faced by municipalities are well documented.” 

Gauteng is dependent on Rand Water’s performance, which must be monitored to ensure there is no “slowonset” institutional failure that would put the province at risk. 

Many of the actions necessary to create a water secure Gauteng City Region require strong co-ordination across the government. 

“Given the risks facing the province, it may be appropriate for the provincial disaster management function to coordinate water-security activities.

The Saturday Star 

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