Water scarcity leaves residents reeling

by Busisiwe Mdluli | October 24, 2022

A long-standing water crisis in Johannesburg affecting areas such as Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby has resulted in residents being dependent on roaming water tanks and filling up buckets with water from taps for their daily activities.

On September 26, 2022, Johannesburg Water released a media statement that announced a power failure at Rand Water’s purification works. High demand for water resulted in Johannesburg Water’s infrastructure being at critically low levels as storage capacity decreased from 52% to 38%. Rand Water, being a bulk supplier to Johannesburg Water, announced stage-two water restrictions in Gauteng on October 4, 2022.

The Brixton reservoir supplies water to Brixton and Mayfair West. When there is little water in this reservoir, these two areas suffer. Wumi Adekunle, a hair stylist from Brixton, said her business is negatively affected when there is a shortage of water. “When the client comes, you [cannot] wash their hair. You [cannot] do anything, even to relax the hair. You [have] to use water to rinse the hair and you have to rinse thoroughly,” she said.

Adekunle added that when there is no water, she loses out on generating profit. When a roaming water tank is dispatched to the area, Adekunle gathers two buckets of water. She explained that this process is long and inconvenient.

Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Coronationville, near Brixton, is also hit by water scarcity. The acting CEO of the hospital, Dr Arthur Manning, said that due to water shortages the hospital has had a problem with flushing toilets. “There has been limited access to flushing toilets in the outpatient sections. This has caused inconvenience as staff and patients were directed to other facilities to use toilets. Manual flushing of toilets using buckets was required in a small section of the hospital.”

Despite this inconvenience, Manning said the hospital has been supplied with water tankers from Johannesburg Water and the hospital makes use of an on-site borehole. In addition, the hospital has received donations of water. Manning also said, “Portable toilets were hired for usage in some patient areas. The estimated cost of contingency plans amounts to R100 000.”

A resident of Mayfair West, Shazia Mamdoo, expressed her concerns about the water crisis. Mamdoo said water shortages had been occurring for more than five years in the area. She also stated that she would boil water to wash dishes and take baths. She said boiling water has an impact on their electricity bill, due to increased usage of the kettle. In relation to taking baths, Mamdoo’s husband, Nazeer Mamdoo, usually wakes up each day at 5am but has to wake an hour earlier to boil water and bath in a bucket to save water. Shazia’s daughter, Sumaya Mamdoo, said she would take her baths at the homes of family members with adequate water supply.

A man washes his hands at a tap in Crosby, Johannesburg. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli

To cope with water scarcity, Shazia Mamdoo installed a Jojo tank in her yard. The cost of a Jojo tank ranges between R2 000 and R5 000 and an additional expense may come from installing the tank and plumbing it. Mamdoo said although the tank may not necessarily be affordable to some, it may grant one “peace of mind”. Mamdoo is also assisted by community WhatsApp groups that communicate when water shortages will occur, and access to boreholes and roaming water tanks. Before water shortages occur, Mamdoo fills buckets of water from the tap for domestic use, as water from a Jojo tank collects rainwater that cannot be used for drinking and food preparation.

There are various contributing factors to water scarcity, and high demand is one of them. Mamdoo believes two contributing factors that result in water scarcity are overpopulation and underdeveloped infrastructure. In Mayfair West, Mamdoo said, there are many people living on one property. Some homeowners have built rooms on their property and rented them out. This has caused a strain on the scarce water resource. Mamdoo said, “The infrastructure has not been upgraded with the population in this area…. If there was a much bigger system, a holding system to hold the water, [the issue would not be so dire].”

Johannesburg Water has established projects to address the water crisis in Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby. These include a new Brixton reservoir, tower and pump station, new Rand Water supply line, reconfiguration of the Crosby reservoir and a new Crosby pump station. According to the projects and infrastructure manager at Johannesburg Water, Nqobezitha Ndimande, these projects may take about four years to complete. The estimated cost of the projects is R326 million.

The councillor for Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby, Bridget Steer, said the implementation of new reservoirs is “something that we have been fighting for since 2016. These projects to augment supply to [these areas] are long overdue.”

A borehole and water tank in Crosby, Johannesburg provide water for residents during water shortages. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli.

The spokesperson for the department of water and sanitation, Sputnik Ratau, argued that the department and government are trying by all means to address water scarcity in South Africa. He said the government is trying to raise the walls of dams to increase storage capacity and provide more water to citizens. According to Ratau, the dams that are yet to see an increase in their wall structure include Hazelmere Dam, Tzaneen Dam and Clanwilliam Dam.

Ratau said the government is looking at the process of desalination. Desalination is the process of removing salt from oceans so that individuals may be able to use the water for drinking purposes, but the process is costly.

As stated previously, water scarcity has a variety of contributing factors and may also be caused by climate change, which is a result of a large increase of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The increase of heat warms the earth in an unnatural way, which ultimately alters weather patterns over a long period of time (Joubert 2008 and Matuszewska 2009).

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but many do not understand the term, along with the consequences associated with it. Associate professor of physical geography in the school of geography, archaeology and environmental studies, Jennifer Fitchett, said climate change is often viewed as a future problem. She said climate change is not publicised sufficiently or presented to the public in a manner that is understandable.

“There has been limited access to flushing toilets in the outpatient sections. This has caused inconvenience as staff and patients were directed to other facilities to use toilets. Manual flushing of toilets using buckets was required in a small section of the hospital.”

Fitchett said only a small proportion of climate change is included in geography school textbooks. She believes a way to educate people about climate change would be through expanding information about climate change and its consequences more extensively in the school curriculum. “If we can weave [climate change] into all of our school curriculums, [students can learn about climate change] in English [if] they are reading stories that involve climate. In Mathematics [they can] solve problems that involve climate change. That would be a very good way to ensure there is a more educated population.”

The relationship between climate change and water scarcity is established through rising temperatures, evaporation and low precipitation. When there are extremely high temperatures, water evaporates at a much quicker speed and water may be lost. Ratau said, “[South African] dams are very flat and wide so the surfaces lend themselves to a high rate of evaporation that unfortunately is something we should live with. The issue of climate change is a reality.”

Spring has sprung in South Africa and the country has experienced heat waves in all provinces. According to Accuweather (2022), in the month of October 2022, maximum temperatures in all provinces range from 25°C to 38°C. In November 2022, maximum temperatures are expected to range between 26°C and 34°C. In December 2022, maximum temperatures are expected to range from 26°C to 35°C in all provinces. Provinces with the highest temperatures include Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Mpumalanga. “When you have a heat wave, you are going to have huge demand because people need water to cool down,” Ratau said.

Hardy (2003) predicted that rising temperatures and low levels of precipitation may cause water scarcity or shortages. Moreover, climate change may influence the supply of water as changes in the earth’s climate may essentially alter the availability of usable water. For example, in a case of flooding water may be contaminated with bacteria, industrial or agricultural waste, sewage and chemicals (Vermont department of health, 2022).

Water is a critical element of life. Water scarcity may result in a number of consequences, such as the demise of fauna and flora, dehydration of humans, reduced sanitation, food supply and agriculture, economic instability as businesses require water for their daily operations and conflict among individuals may arise for the scarce commodity. According to Unicef (2020), approximately four billion people experience severe water scarcity for one month each year and half of the world’s population could be residing in regions that experience water scarcity as early as the year 2025.

In Johannesburg, daily minimum and maximum temperatures are predicted to increase between 2046 and 2065. Minimum temperatures from January and March are predicted to increase to 2-2,7°C, whereas minimum temperatures form April to December are expected to increase to 3,5°C (City of Johannesburg 2008, Golder Associates Africa 2008 and Matuszewska 2009). From 2070 to 2100, minimum summer temperatures will increase between 1 and 3°C whereas minimum winter temperatures will increase between 1 and 2°C. Maximum summer temperatures are likely to increase between 3 and 4°C and maximum winter temperatures between 2 and 4°C.

Rainfall patterns between 2070 and 2100 for Johannesburg are predicted to increase by 20% between December and February. However, rainfall between March and May is likely to decrease by approximately 30%. Rainfall between June and August could possibly increase by 5-10mm. September may experience a decrease in rainfall of between 40% and 80%. However, an increase of 40% may happen in November (City of Johannesburg 2008, Golder Associates Africa 2008, Matuszewska 2009).

Water scarcity in South Africa is a critical issue that has plagued the country, but what can contribute to the detriment of this already strained resource is water pollution. Dr Heidi Richards, a director at the Centre for Water Research and Development at Wits University, believes water scarcity can be addressed through tackling pollution, because it is costly for heavily polluted water to be treated.  Richards said there is a large number of informal settlements along the edges of river systems. These river systems include the Jukskei River and Hennops River in Johannesburg.
According to News 24 (2019), The Jukskei is heavily polluted with bacteria that causes cholera, plastics, metal and rubber. The Hennops River was found to also have plastics, condoms, bags, beer crates and dirty nappies (Infrastructure News 2020). Richards said there is a lack of sanitation systems in these informal settlements that would serve to remove solid waste. She also said, “When people have no other option, unfortunately, they start illegally dumping and throwing their waste into the river because it is the easiest way. [Communities] need municipalities and local government structures to come on board. Our national department should be aware of this so that people have alternatives [to dispose of waste].”

Richards also said, “Pollution on a larger scale is the cause of climate change [due to] gasses being produced during these manufacturing processes and burning of fuels.” She said various individuals are unaware of the impacts of pollution, therefore people need to be educated about it through educational systems. She said Wits needs to conduct more outreach campaigns in schools that are centred on pollution. This may help students understand the consequences of pollution extensively and what can be done to prevent pollution.

As a measure to tackle water scarcity, Ratau encouraged South Africans to stop polluting water. He also said the department of water and sanitation intends to hold people to account for polluting water. People may be held accountable by facing criminal charges. In an effort to govern the use of water, Ratau said, water licenses may be issued to individuals who use large amounts of water for economic gain. This could regulate the amount of water being used. An additional solution that may also be critical is to educate individuals about climate change, water scarcity and the importance of saving water.

FEATURED IMAGE: Residents of Crosby collect water from a tap during one of Johannesburg’s water shortages. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli