It happened in Cape Town. And it could unfold in Gauteng, too. In some parts of the province, experts argue, it already has.
“What is Day Zero?” asked Caryn Seago, of WRP Engineers. “The day the dams are empty? The day food runs out due to reduced irrigated agriculture?
“The day water is no longer in the taps in urban areas? The day load shedding starts because Eskom cannot generate power?”
Seago was part of a recent panel discussion on how Joburg and Gauteng can avoid “Day Zero”. This was held at Wits University as part of its two-week Watershed programme, which it described as a “unique, topical and important” programme of exhibitions and academic symposia to provoke new thinking about water.
Some parts of Gauteng had already reached Day Zero, Seago said. “Users of water do not care whether their lack of supply is due to an empty dam or an unpaid bill to a bulk water services provider.
“Residents in Sebokeng, Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark, Evaton, Palm Springs and Lakeside have no water.”
Mike Muller, an adjunct professor at Wits University’s graduate school of governance, who chaired the panel, explained how Gauteng’s municipalities and other water users would have to reduce per capita consumption by 30% over the next decade to avoid the risk of serious restrictions if there was a drought.
“Gauteng’s population of around 15million is growing at over 3% - both local and in-migration. The province’s overall consumption is high at 300 litres a person a day.
“Rand Water is already using its full allocation of water from the Vaal River system, which includes all the 14 large dams, and will not have more available until 2026 when the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase Two is completed.”
Phase Two, Muller said, was “eight years late” and there was no additional water for Rand Water until then.
Joburg and Gauteng faced particular challenges, he said. “They are far from large rivers, have a variable and uncertain climate, and are dependent on a complex system of transfers to and from the Vaal.”
There needed to be recognition, he said, that “water security is a never- ending challenge” for Gauteng.
The province needed additional supply for its growing population and economy, but had to operate within constraints: by reducing demand and planning for the future.
It would have to “diversify its water mix, fix waste water management, improve water quality, and improve storm water management.
“The good news is that chemical water pollution from industry and mining is declining. The bad news is that ‘biological’ water pollution of the rivers, from sewage, etc, is growing,” said Muller, adding that Gauteng municipalities should invest in better municipal wastewater infrastructure.
There were acute national and municipal problems. “Effective institutions are essential. All users depend on municipal performance.”
Public institutions and businesses should address water impacts strategically, as part of their core business, ensuring water use was monitored and reduced and that contingency plans were in place for compliance with water restrictions. Wastewater and stormwater, too, needed to be monitored and appropriately managed.
Commercial developers had a special responsibility to ensure water- sensitive developments and there needed to be “regulatory compliance” and “zero corruption”.
“Households and communities, as custodians of water, should report leaks, vandalism and theft, save water and not dump rubbish in drains.
Seago said: “We should not be concerned about dams running empty, but about stifled economic growth as a result of increased restrictions in water supply... The energy and efforts to avoid ‘Day Zero’ must be focused on reducing water losses and not increasing water supply.”
Gillian Maree, a senior researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), who was also part of the panel discussion, said water security was being taken seriously in Gauteng.
In March, Premier David Makhura hosted a co-ordinating forum with the mayors of Gauteng to discuss water issues across the province.
This resulted in the establishment of a water room for Gauteng. Its first task was to develop a water security plan for the Gauteng city region.
“The GCRO and a team of specialists are working on proposals for an emerging water security plan for Gauteng which was under discussion with provincial authorities.”
The region’s residents and business, Maree said, needed to accept a “new normal” way of living in cities which meant less water consumption and water being integrated in decision-making.
“Drought and climate change will affect us,” she said, arguing that while experts could learn from past drought, “because of a changing climate, the past may not be a good indicator of future risk. Drought and flood can happen together. While the amount of rainfall may not change there will be a change in how it falls. Temperatures will rise, with increased evaporation, increased consumption, increased concentration of pollutants.”
To ensure fair access to water for all, the region needed to invest in innovative and alternative ways of managing water in cities.
This included green infrastructure, “re-examining how we manage stormwater with water reuse options and technologies for demand-side management,” Maree said.