Having long since fled KwaZulu Natal and the Free State, fat, passing clouds scatter a handful of raindrops over Gauteng like rich men throwing coins at the poor. As the reality of full-blown drought settles in across much of the country, attention has turned to what we can do to mitigate the damage: building and repairing, restricting and cajoling, introducing new technologies, and encouraging new mindsets. ANDREA TEAGLE asks the water experts wherein the solutions to our water woes lie.
Droughts aside, South Africa is normally a dry country. At 464mm, our average yearly rainfall is about half the global average of 860mm. And, unlike in other parts of the world, our cities were built around mining, not water. Because of this, says CEO of the Water Research Commission, Dhesigen Naidoo, “We generally have fairly good adaptation measures for dry spells. But what we are currently experiencing is not just a dry spell. To varying degrees, these five provinces, and this country, are experiencing a full-scale drought.”
To make things a little worse, the drought is taking place within a prolonged dry spell coinciding with El Niño, meaning that really good rains (a so-called “wet period”) might be five to seven years away. Climate-forecasting models predict that rainfall is going to become increasingly variable. So, we’re not just out to survive one drought, we’re out to adjust to a dryer future. Long-term measures include the construction of more storage facilities, including another large dam in Lesotho, Naidoo says.
First, though, we need short-term measures to relieve the water system pressure. The biggest of these is the so-called ‘War on Leaks’. Seven billion rand is lost a year through leaking pipes and taps, and collapsing infrastructure, Minister of Water Affairs, Nomvula Mokonyane, said on Sunday, referring to South Africa’s 37% non-billed water. That 37% of our water is lost to leakages has been repeated numerously over the last few days. This is inaccurate. Non-revenue water – the difference between the volume of water put into a water distribution system and the volume that is billed to customers – has three components. In addition to leaks, it comprises commercial loss (metering inaccuracies and water theft), and unbilled authorised consumption (free water given to certain groups). Water lost to leakages make up 25% of non-revenue water (NRW), or 9.3% of the country’s total consumption. Sounds a little less dramatic when put that way. For comparison’s sake, the World Bank estimates that NRW averages between 40 and 50% in developing countries.
Still, Naidoo argues, “That’s 7.2 billion lost in the system that could fund a whole range of measures to get us to a better place.”
And 9.3% of water lost through leakages, is still water that we can’t afford to lose. Minister Mokonyane said that R350-million would be allocated to drought related projects, and that a countrywide project would be launched to train 1500 youngsters to repair taps and pipes in their communities. As well as infrastructure upgrading, rainwater harvesting and water desalination plants are already being commissioned.
Of course, we like the sound of the War on Leaks, because leakages are not our fault, and they can be fixed without our having to change our own consumption. However, individual water use, is another important saving measure, both in the short and long term. Although it makes up a comparatively small part of the country’s water use (see chart below), household water is clean and drinkable, and thus more valuable than the water used for agricultural irrigation.
Data source: Department of Water Affairs, 2013
“We are flushing drinking water down the toilet. We are bathing in drinking water. We are washing our cars in drinking water,” points out Rhodes University Ecologist, Professor Jay O’Keefe. “All the piped water is drinking water quality, and that’s crazy.”
Naidoo agrees. Rather than change the whole system, however, the Water Research Commission (WRC) is focusing on sanitation, in other words, the water involved in waste management.
“We’re…using sometimes in excess of 9 litres of very clean, pristine drinking water to move 200g of human waste one metre away from the toilet, into the sewerage system. After doing this for 2,000 years, we need to start doing this in much smarter ways,” Naidoo adds.
Cue what Naidoo calls a “new sanitation paradigm”. The WRC is working with international partners, including the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation, to achieve a global shift towards more water-efficient waste-management technologies, and new way of thinking about waste management. New sanitation would see current toilet systems replaced “pour flush systems”, which use around half a litre of water, dry-waste sanitation, and bio-waste systems, which use no water at all, and “pour flush systems”, which use half-a-litre of water. Waste infrastructure would be decentralised, located much closer to households. In addition, alternative systems could be set up provide households with grey water, rather than drinking water, for sanitation. The real challenge, though, according to Naidoo, is persuading people to buy into the system.
“We’re locked into a technological infrastructure. We also have difficulty setting up an industry base to manufacture these new tools, because there’s a market for the old one…. We work within this current mindset of getting waste as far away from you as possible.”
If drinking water can be saved at the household level, the other area with huge potential for increased efficiencies is agriculture. Irrigation accounts for the 60% of South Africa’s water use. The agriculture sector accounts for 2.39% of total Gross Domestic Product, although the effect of drought on the sector has far larger economic spin-offs, with rising food prices expected to reverberate right through to the red meat sector. Driving some of that water use, of course, is a necessity. However, Professor O’Keefe says that, like most places in the world, much of South Africa’s irrigation remains inefficient.
“You could produce the same amount of food with much less water,” O’Keefe says, “but you’ve got to put a lot of initial investment into it.”
Tools available to increase efficiency in agriculture range from irrigation technologies – switching from wasteful flood irrigation systems to micro jet, and drip irrigation – to satellite technology, which enables farmers to better predict yields, and to act on floods and droughts before they strike. The development of drought and salt-resistant crops is another area being explored. Finally, there’s one last, untapped water mine, groundwater.
“Groundwater has the potential to provide 30% of our water needs, and we currently use about 78%,” says Naidoo. However, he emphasises that groundwater should be a supplementary water source, to be drawn on only when needed.
Just as overgrazing can destroy fertile land, groundwater needs to be allowed to replenish itself when good rains come, otherwise, its use will be short-lived. Although some action taken now – like immediate restrictions – might be emergency measures, they could also serve to kick-start South Africa into a more water-conscious and sustainable mindset. We’re not building a bridge to carry us over this drought; we’re finding ways of learning to live within it, so that we can thrive in dryer tomorrow.
“We have to use the crises to get into a much better water secure space in the future,” says Naidoo. “South Africa must be a net producer of solutions [around new water management and new water sanitation] – not only for ourselves, but there’s a global market to supply.” DM
A breakdown in Vaal Dam sewage management is polluting the water for 10-million people in Gauteng while locals live next to streams of human waste.
“Let’s chase the shit!” The statement comes with a wry chuckle on a weather-beaten face, attempting to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Peet Schabort is in search of the next sewage discharge in his hometown of Deneysville.
Sitting on the bank of the Vaal Dam, next to its wall, the town is being overwhelmed by streams of human waste. The ordure is not hard to find. Flocks of birds congregate around lakes of sewage. The murky water is bordered by dark green grass – in stark contrast to the yellow grass that dominates the northern Free State in winter.
Built in the 1930s as a job creation programme during the Great Depression, the dam’s billion cubic metres of water supply most of Gauteng’s drinking water. It is also a catchment for rivers in Gauteng, the Free State, North West and Mpumalanga – to which it supplies irrigation water.
There is an adage here: “Where there are herons, there is shit.”
At fault are the town’s two sewerage pumping stations and the wastewater works that should be cleaning that waste. But it was built for a town of 4 000 people; four times that number now live in the area. The 2012 Green Drop report into the treatment works said they were running at 200% capacity. A 2014 water affairs inspection found “the plant design capacity is 2.59-megalitres a day but it is operating at almost 100% over capacity”.
Liquid chlorine was used as an emergency treatment when spillages occurred – but the municipality could not afford this and applied for funding to upgrade the plant.
The treatment plant is on empty grassland between the adjoining township of Refengkgotso and the two-storey municipal waste dump. It was built without environmental permits. When the Mail & Guardian arrived, the previously stationary aeration arms of the plant’s flotation ponds suddenly started working.
The blue of the Vaal Dam is visible a kilometre from the top of the dump. Yachts sit anchored at the marina, obscured at times by the stinking smoke coming off the dump.
A rusted red tractor pulls into the plant to dump waste collected from homes still using the bucket system. The pungent smell of sewage throttles every other aroma.
Locals say only a fraction of waste makes it to the works. “Basically, the plant now appears to comply with legislation because all the extra sewage is not getting to the plant,” says Irene Main, chairperson of the nongovernmental organisation, Save the Vaal. Standing next to the drunkenly skew and open gates to the plant, she hands us her pile of correspondence with government departments – so thick that her hand cannot grasp around it. “Nobody is taking responsibility for the sewage. Apparently having diarrhoea and E.coli levels at dangerous levels is acceptable.”
Solids and liquids
A few hundred metres from the plant, the pipe carrying sewage to it is leaking into people’s township homes. Solids and liquids bubble up and flow downhill.
None of this seems to upset Johannes Tladi. With a welcoming smile he steps across the blocks in his yard enabling him to walk across the sewage. But then his mood changes: “This really isn’t good. How are we supposed to live like this?”
His supper is cooking in a three-legged pot, which keeps sinking into the saturated earth. Things are worst in spring when the heavy rains come – the lake of sewage in his yard has been there since November, he says.
A manhole cover for the pipe that heads towards the sewerage works continually leaks into his yard. “We ask our municipality but they do nothing,” he says. “Maybe when it is election time they will come and promise to do something.”
When the treatment works is pushed beyond capacity – which locals say is on a weekly basis – it floods into nearby fields. Danie Cilliers’s farm dam is the first stop for the sewage. Green algae floats on its surface. “My fields here are all dead so I can’t grow crops, and now my cattle cannot drink the water.”
He has turned to raising wild game, which are hunted by poachers with packs of dogs. The Vaal Dam is half a kilometre downhill from his dam. When it overflows, the sewage goes straight into South Africa’s most important water source. Narrowing the peak of his khaki cap, he says his boreholes are now contaminated by the sewage and irrigation water from the Vaal is already polluted.
“It’s lunacy,” says Johannesburg water rights activist Paul Fairall, who has been agitating around water for many decades. “We’re poisoning our drinking and farming water because nobody cares enough to stop our municipalities and companies.
“You have clean water coming from Lesotho [through the Highlands water scheme] into the Vaal Dam, and then you pollute it so much that it has to be heavily treated to become drinking water again.”
Fairall says this with a resigned tone. “But nobody is willing to step on anybody else’s toes so the pollution is not being stopped.”
In the case of Deneysville, the municipality started building a new waste pipeline and an artificial reed-bed to release more waste into the dam. The reeds would help treat the water before it was released. But the municipality did not ask for a water-use licence from the water department and, in this case, the department was able to stop construction.
What water the wastewater plant does release through the old pipeline – when it does not overflow – goes into the Vaal Dam 400m away from the inlet pipe for Rand Water. This supplies drinking water to 10-million people in Gauteng. Its last annual report noted that “a number of water quality issues have been identified with regard to the current quality of the Vaal River system”. These include an increase in salinity, sulphates, microbiological pollutants and dissolved solids.
Biological and chemical challenges
Rand Water says in its quarterly report released in April this year that the most significant “water quality challenges” are biological (from faecal matter) and chemical (from gold mining and industrial pollutants). It says that the majority of municipalities around the dam are in contravention of the National Water Act because they are releasing unsafe levels of ammonia and E.coli. The co-operative governance department and municipality did not respond to questions about these contraventions.
Rand Water, which monitors water quality on behalf of water affairs, also avoided answering questions this week. The results of its research are given to local water forums. In most cases the levels in the dam exceed safe levels as prescribed by the World Health Organisation.
The pollutants in the dam can lead to cancer, birth defects, skin problems and brain damage, in the long term. But in Deneysville the short-term effects – such as diarrhoea – are in abundance.
“We are creating a breeding ground for super diseases,” says Andre Johnson, who lives downstream from the sewerage plant. He recently caught fish in the Vaal Dam that were covered in sores. “Things are becoming strange.”
They pour excuses on troubled waters
The Vaal Dam was built to catch and supply water to the economic heartland of South Africa. But it has become ringed by heavy industry, mining, farming and human settlements. Each releases its own pollutants into the dam.
The drinking water provider to Gauteng, Rand Water, has to purify the water it sources from the Vaal Dam. Everyone else – from farmers to people downstream who don’t have purification facilities – has to use polluted water.
The water affairs department’s policy on this is dubbed “fixing pollution with dilution”. When the water becomes too polluted, more water is allowed to flow through the Vaal. This is despite South Africa being the 30th driest country in the world.
Solutions are supposed to come from catchment management agencies. These bring together anyone using water to work out issues of sharing and stopping pollution. But, despite being mooted a decade ago, most of these are still not operating.
Instead, users meet at water forums. The minutes from several of these around the Vaal Dam point to municipal wastewater treatment plants as the biggest headache when it comes to dirty water.
Water affairs says in its annual reports in the 2000s these plants released 200 000 tonnes of salts into the dam each year. Industry added 280 000 tonnes more, which resulted in levels five times the World Health Organisation’s recommendation.
The 2010 minutes of the Blesbokspruit water forum, in the Vaal Dam’s catchment area, come with quarterly water quality status bulletins for the whole area. Recorded by Rand Water, almost every reading along the dam and in its two subsidiary rivers indicates dangerously elevated levels of ammonia, chloride, nitrate, phosphate, sulphate, E.coli and other pollutants.
In often heated discussions – recorded in the minutes – exasperated government officials argue with each other about the causes of pollution and ways to stop them. When questions are raised by civil society, polite answers that allude to overriding political concerns are given.
In a meeting last year one water official said: “All we can do is keep diluting water in the Vaal as there is little will to really tackle the problem: the polluters … especially since local government is such a big source of that pollution.”
The lack of government co-operation is continually repeated. In Deneysville, 2 500 new houses are being built without a corresponding upgrade to the already broken wastewater treatment system.
Old mines south of the dam have been allowed to continue polluting the Wilge River, which brings water from Lesotho to the Vaal. These are linked to several large bird and fish die-offs. New gold and coal mines have been given prospecting licences by the mineral resources department along the dam’s eastern shore. The mines south of Heidelberg are going ahead despite opposition from Rand Water and water affairs about being in a critical water catchment.
Sewerage plants, the worst polluters, fall under the co-operative governance department. Municipalities, such as Deneysville, are given funding to build and maintain their works. The water department gives them a licence to do this, on condition that they release clean water back into local water sources. These sources are owned by the department, which acts as the custodian of all the water in the country.
To track these plants, water affairs used to release the annual Green Drop report. The last one said six plants around the Vaal Dam were releasing “noncompliant” water, in other words, illegal water. But an official in Pretoria says: “Our hands are tied. This gem [the Vaal Dam] in our water system is being destroyed by municipalities, but what can we do? Government departments are not allowed to take each other on.”
Eskom’s electricity woes have hastened the failure of water infrastructure around the country.
For many South Africans, the water crisis is already here. For others, research and projections show, it is only a matter of time – and perhaps not a great deal of time.
Thanks to load-shedding, and a shortage of water when electricity is restricted, the thirsty future could arrive in major urban centres as soon as this summer.
Early last year, four people died in violent protests over a lack of water in the Mothotlung township outside Brits in North West. In the glare of national publicity, water was quickly restored.
But on Monday, almost exactly a year later, taps in the township again ran dry. When the water flowed again on Tuesday, it was brown.
“I am scared to drink water from the tap. I only use it for bathing and washing clothes. I do buy water from the tuck shop when I have money,” said 72-year-old widow Johana Ngwato.
“My daughter is six years old and, whenever she takes the water, she experiences diarrhoea,” said Ngwato’s niece, Baile Masango.
In 2013, a two-week water outage in Grahamstown saw academics, in their formal caps and gowns, march in lockstep on the city council offices, with township residents following, brandishing placards.
Rhodes University, the lifeblood of the town, issued a stark warning that garnered national attention: without water it would have to close its doors.
On Monday night, the water supply went off again without warning in a section of the township overlooking Grahamstown, leaving Tembinkosi Mhlakaza to wonder at what point he should go to fetch water for his grandmother, and how far he would have to go to get it.
“She’s nearly 80,” Mhlakaza said. “Our water went out last night, and it may come on this afternoon. But if it doesn’t, I have to make a plan for her.”
In 2014, the residents of Thlolong outside Kestell in the Free State were promised that a new dam would solve their water woes. On Wednesday, a resident, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said neither the dam nor emergency water supplies were anywhere to be seen.
“We are thirsty. It has been eight years now that we live like this. The tankers that the municipality use to bring us water are not here this week; we didn’t see them last week. We don’t know what we must do now.”
In Johannesburg, some suburbs were warned this week to expect weekend water outages because of scheduled maintenance at a pumping station – the same station that left some of the same suburbs, and some hospitals, without water for days last year. The maintenance plan was later postponed.
These are no longer isolated cases. According to government officials, about a third of all towns are in some form of serious water distress. The department of water considers one in 10 municipal water systems to be totally dysfunctional, and, of those that are working, a quarter experiences regular service disruptions of more than two days at a time.
In provinces such as Mpumalanga, there are more households that have regular water interruptions than those with a steady supply.
In Mothotlung and Grahamstown, the water supply issues can be linked directly to municipal incompetence, a lack of engineering skills and the failure of management. Neither area has a shortage of untreated water, but they are going thirsty because of a lack of maintenance and proper financial administration and planning.
These problems show no signs of abating, as bitter experience shows.
“If you give me the money and people, I can fix it up for good,” said a Grahamstown city engineer, who is not authorised to speak to the media. “Without money and people, I’ll keep it running as long as I can. Just don’t ask me to fix it quickly when it really all breaks down; then you can keep your money.”
In Johannesburg, water shortages in 2014 were caused by electricity failure to a key pumping station, which in turn was linked to cable theft.
With Eskom warning that there will be regular load-shedding for the rest of the summer, and unable to deliver consistent power for several more years, water engineers are trying to work out how to manage shortages.
Meagre reserve margins
In many areas, water systems have either little or very meagre reserve margins. Electricity outages at pumps that move raw water could leave treatment stations without water. And, without treated water to move, pumps responsible for distribution would be idle when they do get electricity.
These two factors – local incompetence and a national electricity shortage – will have the biggest impact on what, if anything, comes out of the taps for the next several years.
But, within the next decade, two other fundamental issues are likely to make themselves felt – problems that no amount of local governing excellence or electricity will solve.
For one, there is simply not enough water left to go around.
“The situation currently in South Africa is that we have 98% of the water in the country being considered fully allocated. This means that my child and your child that is being born tomorrow has 2% of water for use going into the future,” then water minister Edna Molewa said of water usage rights in 2013.
Eskom has a 99.5% assurance of receiving water, meaning the power utility gets water before any other sector of the economy.
The 2030 Water Resources Group, of which the department is a member, has calculated that, by 2030, the demand for water will exceed supply by 17%. In most of South Africa’s catchments, demand is already outstripping supply, and it is only by piping water from places such as Lesotho that there is enough for now.
Climate change projections are that, by mid-century, reduced rainfall could lower the amount of available water by 10%. Rainfall is expected to come in shorter, but more violent, spells. The projections say this will make collection in dams and underground difficult.
Exactly how much water is available is a complex calculation, with many variables and estimates to consider, and it is seasonal, to boot.
In lay terms, the easy water is already being harvested. Major South African rivers have been dammed to maximum capacity – there are nearly 4400 registered dams – and some would argue beyond their capacity; river systems require what is sometimes referred to as an “ecological reserve”, a minimum amount of water to continue functioning and be useful.
Barriers to supply
Water systems that could handle new dams are both far from population centres and limited in their ability to supply water.
“Many parts of the country have either reached or are fast approaching the point at which all of the financially viable freshwater resources are fully utilised and where building new dams will not address the challenges,” the department of water affairs said in its 2013 strategy report.
That leaves South Africa more dependent than ever on water pumped from Lesotho, where a new phase of the Highlands water scheme will come on line in 2020.
But all the run-off from Lesotho must inevitably flow through South Africa to the ocean, making even that water-rich country a finite resource for South Africans.
An increase in global temperatures is expected to increase evaporation from dams, which potentially makes building more an exercise in running on the spot rather than getting ahead.
More groundwater can be exploited, but only by so much. Desalination is possible, but it requires large amounts of electricity and is very expensive.
Little to go around
That all leaves little untreated water to go around, even without the expected increases in municipal use, because of a growing population, agricultural use, which is increasing the amount of land under irrigation and is a mainstay of plans to improve both employment and food security, and industrial use.
“Increases in water supply cannot match the expected increase in demand without additional and far-reaching interventions,” Steve Hedden and Jakkie Cilliers, of the Institute for Security Studies, wrote in a September 2014 paper. “The water crisis cannot be solved through engineering alone.”
The second structural problem is an unfolding ecological disaster, which is making available water more difficult to treat and, eventually and without intervention, will make direct use of untreated water impossible.
“Water ecosystems are not in a healthy state,” according to the department of water affairs’ National Water Resource Strategy 2013. “Of the 233 river ecosystem types, 60% are threatened, with 25% of these critically endangered … Of 792 wetland ecosystems, 65% have been identified as threatened, and 48% as critically endangered.”
The sources of pollution in fresh water include industrial run-off and acid mine drainage, but human waste is a larger and more immediately dangerous component, ironically because of the large amount of water South Africans use.
“Most waste water treatment facilities are under stress because so much more waste water needs to be treated,” said Gunnar Sigge, head of Stellenbosch University’s department of food science and one of those involved in a seminal – and alarming – 2012 study for the Water Research Commission.
“Some of the biggest problems [in the water system] are caused by treatment works that aren’t functioning.”
Jo Barnes, a specialist in community health risks at Stellenbosch, said a chronic lack of investment in treatment plants meant conditions that should not exist, such as diarrhoea, were killing people.
“The whole environment where people live is contaminated. This is a massive, massive problem, but one that people will not talk about. There are just a few angry people trying to raise awareness.”
The 2012 study, carried out in all the provinces and over a three-to-four year period, found that the amount of faecal matter in many water systems made it unsafe for irrigation, because eating raw produce watered with it could cause illness.
Informal settlements both contribute to the pollution and are affected by it, and some draw directly on groundwater. According to the department of human settlements, the number of informal settlements rose from 300 in 1994 to about 2 700 today, housing 1.3-million families.
In Mothotlung, Serube Lukhelo is afraid to give her one-year-old baby water that could cause diarrhoea, so she spends what money she has on bottled water.
In Grahamstown’s Joza location, Nomfundo Bentele is considering putting up a sign at her hair salon to let customers know whether she has water or not.
In Johannesburg residents and hospitals wait to hear when water from their taps will stop running.
Everywhere else the clock is ticking.
Source: Mail & Guardian
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