Residents of Palm Spring, in the Emfuleni municipality in the Vaal, gather water from a borehole in 2017. Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

Gauteng must never take its water security for granted. That’s the central message in the August 2019 final draft of the Water Security Perspective for the Gauteng City-Region.

Water security is at the forefront of public debate across South Africa, says the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO). “Spring heatwaves and concerns over late rainfall towards the end of a dry winter season on the highveld have many people concerned about water security.”

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

The province lies high on the divide between SA's two great rivers, with very limited local water resources, reads the perspective. “It depends on supplies from a large, highly engineered system and a few local sources that draw water from five different river basins across six provinces. “The climate that supports these supplies is extremely variable with a history of unpredictable multi-year droughts.”

The threat of climate change compounds this uncertainty, adding further long-term risk. “The water crisis in Cape Town over the past three years demonstrates the need for permanent vigilance in such circumstances. 

As Gauteng’s population expands and the economy grows, we must continually review the security of our city region’s water supply if it is to continue to sustain its people and their economic growth. Cape Town has shown how quickly a large city can enter a crisis if it is not prepared.”

While the extensive infrastructure of the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) means there is no immediate danger of water shortages, ongoing severe droughts in other parts of South Africa and the water shortages in Cape Town, require vigilance.

The perspective was written by Mike Muller, Barbara Schreiner, Abri Vermeulen, Gillian Maree and Traci Reddy. “Immediate priorities include ensuring that Polihali Dam, the next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, is completed on time. Until that is done, the province will be at risk of supply shortages if there’s a prolonged dry period. 

So, in the meanwhile, Gauteng must ensure that water consumption is kept at sustainable limits. And it must be ready to restrict water use as soon as drought becomes evident.

“In the longer term, this urban province must work to build a more resilient community that can live comfortably with its available water resources  and manage the risk it faces.

“Critically, the people of Gauteng need to understand how their water reaches their homes and workplaces where their wastewater goes to and how their behaviour can keep that cycle working."

Gauteng can only claim to be water secure when all its residents have affordable access to safe, reliable water supplies and a safely managed, dignified sanitation service. While the performance of Gauteng’s water system is “still reasonably good”, it’s entering a period during which its overall water security is at risk and is not immune to water risks facing the country as a whole.

At around 300 litres per person per day, its water use is higher than the national average (235 litres) and outstrips 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.”

Groundwater, wastewater re-use, treated acid mine drainage, and rainwater harvesting are potential sources of water that can improve water security. Water security is threatened by institutional weakness and “possible 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 ‘slow-onset’ institutional failure that would put Gauteng at risk,” reads the perspective.

Dead fishes lay were part of the Vaal Dam used to flow . Picture: Itumeleng English


Learn to live with what we’ve got

Gauteng’s residents are getting worried about water and this is an important first step, but there’s still a long way to go, says expert Professor Mike Muller.

“Walk around Joburg’s business areas and upmarket suburbs and you will see irrigation in the middle of the day, water running across paved areas and roadways, cars being washed with hosepipes - and no evidence of any action despite the fact that all these actions are prohibited, in terms of current restrictions,” said Muller, visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Governance.

“This morning, I did see someone having a borehole drilled in his garden and if there is a real crisis, he will have an alternative. But that won’t work if everyone does it and it’s more expensive than a well-run public system.”

Gauteng’s government, he said, needs to take a disaster risk reduction approach, which is its mandate “rather than wait, like Cape Town, for a disaster and then struggle to manage it”.

Provincial authorities did not respond to queries from the Saturday Star this week.

The provincial government, said Muller, needs to support Rand Water’s proposal to set caps for each municipality “and tell them they will not be able to get any additional water for the next five years.

“They will then have to be much more careful about what they do with the water that Rand Water supplies to city reservoirs. These measures are necessary because preliminary work on the Polihali Dam (Lesotho Highland Water Project Phase Two) has not begun. The earliest it will supply Gauteng is 2026. That means until then we have to live with what we’ve got.”

Since Gauteng’s population is growing rapidly - almost 3% per year - which means the consumption of water per person must be reduced by 3% a year for the next six years.

“Municipalities must take responsibility for this and begin to control water use much more aggressively.

“That will involve both improving the efficiency of their own distribution system and persuading (or forcing) their citizens to reduce their water use. It would be best to persuade, but it may be necessary to resort to throttling supplies to show that they are serious.”

Eddie Singo, Rand Water’s executive manager for operations, agreed that, while residents are concerned about water security, this has not led to widespread behaviour change.

“One realises they are worried when they ask questions such as ‘Will we have water beyond November?’ or ‘Are our reservoirs able to keep enough water?’

“However, we believe residents should be concerned to the extent that they self-police. If it means our residents need to be activists, talking to neighbours who are abusing water, then that’s the level of concern we want to see. 

Then you start seeing behaviour change, but because we were not seeing that, we were forced to implement restrictions, which is Rand Water’s last resort.”

Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation, said the level of the Vaal Dam is sitting at 46.2% and levels in the Integrated Vaal River System at 58.8%.

“Our reservoirs have improved,” said Singo. “A lot of them are where we want them to be We’re seeing good responses from municipalities. There’s the understanding that if Rand Water can’t supply the economy of Gauteng, then the economy of SA will go down. They know when we restrict, they have to restrict their own reservoirs as well.”

The Saturday Star