Water shortages loom for Durban

Water shortages are likely in Durban as early as next year, according to the head of the city's water department.

Water shortages are likely in Durban as early as next year, according to the head of the city's water department.

Published Mar 6, 2011


Durban could face water restrictions as early as next year. This is the warming from eThekwini municipality water department head Neil Macleod, who said last week that recent good rains are the only reason restrictions have been avoided so far this year.

“The total rainfall for last year, for this region, was the fourth lowest on record. The dams at the beginning of this year were on average 20 percent lower than at the start of 2010. We typically have a series of wetter years followed by a series of dryer years. The wet years have continued for an extended period and have protected us for the statistical possibility of restrictions.

“If we’d had normal rainfall over the past three years, we would almost certainly be in the middle of water restrictions right now,” he said.

And the situation is likely to get worse. “For 2011, I do not see restrictions being introduced. But 2012 could be a different story. We are nearing the end of the summer rains and if we have a dry winter comparable to last year, then water restrictions in 2012 are almost inevitable,” he said.

Macleod’s comments come just two weeks after Professor Mike Muller, former Department of Water Affairs director-general and now commissioner of the government’s National Planning Commission, warned that South Africa will face a water crisis within the next decade.

He singled out the eThekwini, Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Joburg metros as the municipalities likely to first feel the shortages.

Muller told the Sunday Tribune yesterday that it is vital for cities to plan to ensure they avoided water crises.

“We need to plan and do the right things at the right time. Water is difficult because you don’t know exactly how much you have. You’re working on estimates of how much rain will fall, but it might not be the same as what you’ve estimated.

“We need to ensure not only that we have enough water now, but that we have enough if there is a drought. If that happens, we need to know we have plans in place. The national Water Affairs department has plans for all major cities, but often they are not implemented in time.

Every city needs to think about what it needs to do and whether it is doing it,” he said.

Muller said he was impressed with the efforts of Macleod’s department to reduce water losses and ensure available water was being used effectively. “Every city, when it plans, needs to look beyond building dams. They need to conserve and better use the water they’ve got,” he said.

Macleod said: “We are at a point where our dams are unable to sustain the current demand over an extended period and the risk of failure is one in 15 years – that means water rationing every 15 years, statistically.”

Adding to the problem in Durban is the amount of water lost or stolen, with the recent draft budget report for the 2011/12 financial year stating that 35 percent of the city’s water is lost or stolen through illegal connections.

Macleod said measures were in place to reduce this figure, including replacing ageing pipes and managing water pipe pressure.

But Macleod said other measures need to be considered, including building the Spring Grove Dam in the KZN Midlands and building a dam in the Umkomazi River.

Spring Grove should have been storing water five years ago, he said, “but construction work has not even started” depite an ever-growing demand for water. Macleod said even if Spring Grove was built there would still be a need for more capacity.

The other option would be to dam the Umkomazi River.

“The most recent estimate I saw put the final cost at close to R20 billion. Environmentally, the proposed site is also in a rather sensitive area.

“Continuing with traditional dam building is becoming unaffordable from both economic and environmental perspectives,” he said.

Given this, other more innovative measures are needed, including desalination of seawater and recycling water. Recycling is cheaper but has other implications.

“People don’t like the idea or want to drink recycled sewage. It has a ‘yuck’ factor. This is despite the fact that most of our water comes from heavily polluted waters, but it is the thought of recycled sewage that disturbs people. Durban’s water, for example, has Pietermaritzburg’s sewage in it. Recycling is more an emotional thing, and that’s the really big negative we’re facing,” Macleod said.

A desalination plant would cost about the same to build as a recycling plant – about R1.6bn to R2bn.

“Recycling is cheaper because the amount of impurities, and this might be surprising, are higher in seawater than sewage, making it easier to treat than seawater. Sewage plants would be inland, while the desalination plant is at sea level, so the amount you spend on pumping the treated water is less. While the capital costs are about the same, the operation costs do differ,” he said, adding they would be run by a private company, probably foreign, because of the specialist nature of the work.

Both options are being researched, but Macleod said a decision was needed urgently.

“Whatever we build, it has to be built by 2013 or 2014. We need it really soon,” he said.

Macleod encouraged ratepayers to report water theft or leaks so they can be dealt with quickly. The toll-free number is 080 131 3013.

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