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Gauteng’s residents are going to have to get used to using less water if they want to avoid the risk of dramatic drought restrictions.

While the province is not currently facing a Day Zero crisis, the real problem is still emerging, said Mike Muller, an adjunct professor at Wits University’s graduate school of governance.

“Gauteng is at the limit of the water it's allowed to take out of the Vaal system. So from this year on, even though Gauteng’s population is increasing at nearly 3% a year, there will be no extra water until Polihali Dam (Lesotho) is finished.”

The next increase in water supply for the province will come from the construction of the dam, which is phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands water project.

“The latest from the acting director general of the Department of Water and Sanitation is that, because of the huge amount of money that (former minister) Nomvula Mokonyane wasted, the department has not paid the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority the money for water from Lesotho. If that carries on, the authority will not be able to borrow the money to build the new dam and we will really be in trouble.

“So people are going to have to get used to using less if they want to avoid the risk of dramatic drought restrictions. This is still not being talked about publicly by municipalities and provincial government.”

While the Polihali Dam project is at the design and construction stage “there appear to be delays in moving to construction of the main dam. This could result in a delay of delivery of water until 2027. This will certainly put Gauteng at risk in the event we have a severe drought before then”.

If the government does not expedite the dam’s construction, “we do risk creating a crisis”.

This week, the level of the Vaal Dam dropped to below 50% but Muller said dam levels were not low.

“Storage in the Vaal River system on Monday was 60.6% of total capacity. This is an acceptable level for the end of the dry winter season. That’s why, last month, the department’s annual operating analysis meeting recommended no restrictions will be needed this year provided the municipalities do not draw more water than Rand Water’s licences allow.”

This week, Rand Water started implementing stage 2 water supply restrictions in some parts of the City of Johannesburg, largely due to high demand.

It says the normal expected equitable water it supplies is 4370 million litres a day (Ml/d) however the average consumption is 4900Ml/d, which “is unsustainable and will result in water supply interruptions”.

Johannesburg Water started throttling reservoirs at a rate of 20% to 40% in line with the restrictions imposed by Rand Water.

On October 1, the department implemented a planned two-month shutdown of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to allow for maintenance work on the tunnel system.

“The Integrated Vaal River system is still at 60% - and we’re far from getting to a Day Zero,” said Eddie Singo, executive manager in operations at Rand Water. “People are getting worried looking at the Vaal Dam itself that’s gone below 50%. That was to be expected because of the maintenance work, but we’re doing well.”

Trevor Balzer, the former deputy director-general of the department, said: “Rand Water is battling to deal with the extremely high demand from their consumers: the 18-odd municipalities serving 12 million people. The municipalities are overusing and overshooting their licence allocations. They have to introduce restrictions, which are not drought-related but related to the over consumption of water.”

Last month, Professor Francois Engelbrecht of the Global Change Institute at Wits University, warned Gauteng faces the risk of experiencing a major “Day Zero-type event”, as the planet warms from climate change. 

“We run the risk of Gauteng not receiving its full supply or even any of its water from the Lesotho mega-dams. This requires more or less four to five years of drought.” Joburg and Gauteng face particular challenges, said water experts. 

The areas 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. Gillian Maree, a senior researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, said in the past five years Gauteng’s population had grown by more than 1.5 million “and that’s not slowing down. 

“So, we live in an area with no natural water supply and we’re growing rapidly – it’s those two factors within the constraints that there is going to be no new water supply added to Gauteng until Lesotho Highlands phase 2 comes in, that are really going to define what water availability means to us. 

“The language of Day Zero is defeating. We need to be far more aware of water savings. “Those of us with water in our homes are wasteful. “Taking on water-saving measures is not going to restrict your lifestyle or livelihood."

The Saturday Star