Experts predicted the need for a larger water capacity more than a decade ago, but lack of action from water entities and municipalities has left Johannesburg communities unprepared to deal with the consequences.
Johannesburg is the industrial and commercial heart that gives life to South Africa’s continuously shifting economy. However, the city is prone to poor planning and the mismanagement of valuable resources which has left many residents without access to basic service delivery such as water.
Johannesburg started as a dusty, dry mining town, located far away from any water source. At first, people were dependent on ground water supplies and small rivers. The infrastructure of the Vaal Dam was completed in the 1930s, providing a viable bulk water supply that reached its capacity in the 1970s. Consequently, South Africa needed to increase supply and capacity of viable water sources and signed the first water treaty with Lesotho which jumpstarted the Lesotho Highlands Project in 1986.
It is a fundamental human right for all South African’s to have access to clean and safe water. According to the Water Services Act (WSA) of 1997, Water Services Institutions (WSI) are required to provide definitive and structural plans publicly each year to show how they are mitigating the water crisis. WSIs therefore should have predicted that the population would drastically increase, and a larger water capacity would be needed.
Water shortages have become the norm throughout Joburg, especially in the South of Joburg in areas such as Linmeyer and in other regions including Brixton and Melville.
Severa Rech Cassarino, a Linmeyer resident, has described that the outages began as early as May 2022, and would last for up to 11 days. She described the water situation this year as being one of “roaming outages with no water” for days at a time. Further, she added that old age homes also suffer greatly as elderly people find it difficult to carry buckets around to collect water.
Cassarino told Wits Vuvuzela that they have received help in the form of water tankers but that these are quite far and few, and residents do not trust the safety of the water. She goes on to say that the municipality has failed their area in terms of service delivery and that they have been “dispossessed of a service [they] are being billed for.”
Why do we have these water challenges?
South Africa is one of the driest countries in the world with an average rainfall of 500mm compared to a world average of 860mm in 2022. Our climate is often unpredictable and as a result, more measures need to be taken to ensure water is used sparingly.
Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sean Phillips, stated in an online discussion titled, Reimagining Joburg: Weighing up the Water Crisis, that there is a set abstraction limit given to Rand Water regarding how much water they are allowed to draw from our Vaal River system. Abstraction refers to the process of taking water from a water source to treat and produce safe potable (drinking) water. The reason this is restricted is to ensure water is kept stored in case of emergencies such as a drought, to prevent dams from running completely dry.
These set limits create challenging circumstances for Rand Water who legally can only supply a certain amount to their customers. Phillips claims that water is a “localized issue” as there is no national grid for water like there is for power. This means the department has very little say in how municipalities choose to operate and use their allocated budget. Simply put, the DWS, Rand Water, and Joburg water all share a water network but operate separately in terms of maintaining their own infrastructure, playing their own vital roles in the water system, and controlling their own budgets.
“We have been abandoned by our governing powers.”
What roles do different entities play in distributing water?
Rand Water is the bulk water provider for Joburg and abstracts most of its water from Lesotho and local dams – mainly the Vaal River system – which are currently full as stated by Chief Executive Officer, Sipho Mosai, in a media briefing. Their biggest customer is Joburg Water who buys and distributes water to the city through a network of 128 reservoirs, supplying 1.6 billion litres of potable water daily, according to Joburg Water Spokesperson, Nombuso Shabalala.
Rand Water receives no budget from government and in a Rand Water media briefing, COO Mahlomola Mehlo stated that one of their biggest challenges is that there are underperforming municipalities – meaning that they do pay but they do not pay timeously within a 35-day period. He goes on to say that Rand Water has just under R6 billion outstanding debt and an increasing credit loss of R2.1 billion this year which is a 35% loss.
Mehlo says that Rand Water is pumping as much water as they can, and they are adding infrastructure to store and purify more water.
Rand Water produces an estimated 5200 megalitres of water per day from two primary systems: the Zuikerbosch and Vereeniging purification works. They purify and store their water in 59 strategically placed reservoirs around the country. These are in case of infrastructure breakdowns or power outages that put strain on the system. When there are power outages or loadshedding, the Rand Water system is unable to pump water adequately, leaving low-lying regions with low water pressure and high-lying regions without any water at all.
The COO explained that Rand Water faces many challenges that affect their water supply with their current storage sitting at a 30-40% capacity when ideally it needs to be sitting at a 60-80% capacity. He went on to explain that over-consumption remains a huge issue due to a continuously increasing population with Joburg accounting for 77% of water consumption. Rand Water has an estimated water loss rate of 30% in water that is distributed due to poor infrastructure resulting in burst pipes, leaking ground water, system errors, and general pipe leaks that are not maintained which all contribute to water loss.
He admits that this system is unsustainable, and the constant loss puts strain on a system that is not designed to accommodate wastage. Rand Water has already reached and exceeded their abstraction limit from the Vaal and yet, residents in high-lying regions are still left without water for weeks to months at a time.
Executive Manager of the Water Unity Action Network, Dr Ferrial Adam, stated in the Re-Imagining Joburg: Weighing up the Water Crisis discussion, that one of the main challenges is that there is no communication between residents and entities and there is a lack of transparency. She says that residents are confused about what is going on and that we cannot let the “water tank mafia” take over and break down infrastructure even further. Departments need to communicate more and provide residents with easily accessible solutions to the water crisis.
Joburg Water controls the reticulation water supply which means they control the water pipeline network, 128 reservoirs, tank provisions, and are responsible for the pumping and delivery of water to Joburg residents.
Joburg Water Spokesperson, Nombuso Shabalala told Wits Vuvuzela that their challenges include an inconsistent incoming water supply, ageing infrastructure which leads to frequent pipe bursts and water leaks, and vandalism of infrastructure which causes water supply issues as systems need to be shut down to repair damages.
Joburg Water’s Acting General Manager of Operations, Logan Munsamy, told Wits Vuvuzela in a media briefing that inconsistent water supply tied together with loadshedding drastically affects their ability to store and pump water. Reservoirs become critically low to empty which can take weeks to recover. Munsamy says that Joburg Water has a design standard that requires a minimum of 24-hours storage capacity, which the entity meets, and above. The problem comes in where there are a few systems which are below capacity and need to be upgraded. However, he says, “like in any construction project, financial resources are limited,” and this causes a large backlog on their infrastructure, so it will take some time.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s role is to make sure all the entities are performing their vital duties adequately and that they are putting measures in place to protect our valuable water resources. Their mandate is to ensure that the country’s water resources are properly protected, managed, developed, conserved and used by controlling, regulating, and supporting the distribution of safe water. Therefore, the DWS should be ensuring that all water infrastructure is properly maintained throughout the country and that every resident has access to water as their right in Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution which states that everyone has the right to “sufficient food and water”. The fact that there are residents and many areas throughout the city that have gone days to months without water is unconstitutional and demonstrates the need for drastic change and long-term solutions.
The Vaal River System gate where water is stored and flushed out when it reaches above capacity to allow for treatment and purification of more water. Water is then pumped through a series of water networks and piped into our homes. Photo: Georgia Cartwright
What are the solutions?
Water entities are proactively working on various projects to combat the water shortages our city faces. The problem is that many of these projects are going to take a long time to implement and are very expensive. In a media briefing by Rand Water, Chief Executive Officer Sipho Mosai, stated that Rand Water has launched the Zuikerbosch 5A System which is an additional purification system that added 150 megalitres of water per day to their storage systems. He says that they additionally launched the Vlakfontein Reservoir on February 17, 2023, as part of an infrastructure upgrade to increase storage capacity which was an estimated R466 million project which began construction in 2020.
General Director of DWS says that they did predict that the economy was growing and so invested in the Lesotho Highlands Project. This project is a multi-phased project that is meant to provide more water to the Gauteng region while generating hydroelectricity for Lesotho. The project is another method of water harvesting through abstracting water from the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho Highlands through various dams and pumping it through our water systems.
Phase one was completed in 2003, however, Phase two is still incomplete and was meant to be finished by 2019. The project is now nine years overdue and is only estimated to be completed and providing water by 2028 according to Philips. He says that Rand Water has a program in place of R35 billion so that by the time the project is complete, they will have the extra capacity needed to treat more water and provide more water to municipalities.
Philips adds that the root cause of our water shortages can be traced to the delay in the Lesotho Highlands Project and says the projects infrastructure is extremely costly. He says that the department is attempting to act against municipalities for pollution of water sources and says that they are currently in the process of a court case with the Tshwane Municipality regarding wastewater works. He says that it is important to focus on reducing leaks and budgeting more for maintenance and operations to reduce water loss. It is very important to also educate residents on water consumption methods to help reduce water wastage.
Shabalala says from Joburg Water’s side of things they are working on many different campaigns to try and resolve some of our water challenges. Joburg water has linked the Northcliff (which is stable and has enough bulk supply) and Hursthill reservoirs to increase water supply. He says that this will provide a more stable and convenient water supply in one of their biggest problematic systems the “Commando System comprising Brixton, Crosby, and Hursthill.” Joburg Water is also in the process of upgrading one of their main water supplies into Jan Hofmeyer, which also forms part of the Brixton system.
Shabalala says they have also engaged with City Power and Eskom to try and gain some reprieve from loadshedding in the areas that have water system networks. During times of shortages, Joburg Water works closely with Ward Councillors in all affected areas to help locate central areas to deploy their water tankers. Additionally, Joburg Water has a dedicated team that regularly inspects and tries to prevent illegal connections to combat theft and vandalism.
Shabalala told Wits Vuvuzela that Joburg Water is working on many programs to improve reservoir storage upgrades, water pipe replacement in various regions, repairing leaking reservoirs and fixing tower infrastructure. Joburg Water are also embarking on a bulk pipe renewal upgrade with a budget allocation of R15.6 billion for the 2023/2024 financial year. He says this budget mainly caters for the tariff increase of 9.3% on water purchases from Rand Water which is used to invest in maintenance of the water network. It is crucial that more short-term strategies are implemented to assist residents with water shortages as any real solutions are going to take many years to implement.
Joburg residents are in for a tough couple of years with many more water restrictions to come to prepare for a modified, more reliable water system. Residents can expect to be without water for days to weeks at a time until these projects are completed, which could take years. According to water expert and Associate Professor at Unisa, Anja Du Plessis, this is because of “mismanagement and overall lack of accountability, transparency, [and a] lack of planning and implementation of appropriate actions” at a much earlier stage. Residents in the meantime are encouraged to save as much water as possible by using rainwater or groundwater for gardening purposes and to avoid using large amount of water during peak hours between 6am and 6pm.
FEATURED IMAGE: Close-up image of the Vaal River System where water is stored and distributed via a system of interconnected water pipes to our homes. Photo: Georgia Cartwright
The Southern African region is reportedly suffering one of the worst droughts in recent years. In light of this ongoing drought, the City Of Johannesburg (CoJ) announced further measures following level two water restrictions have been in place since November last year. These new measures include fines of up to R1500 for the misuse of water by using sprinklers, hose pipes to wash cars and the use of municipal water to fill up swimming pools.
FLOOD: Water damage caused part of the ceiling at Wartenweiler library to collapse. Flooding from open taps has closed Wartenweiler and William Cullen library. Photo: Provided
The Willam Cullen and Wartenweiler libraries were flooded overnight after bathroom taps were left open during the water outage yesterday.
Michele Pickover, the principle curator for the historical papers research archives, said that the staff arrived this morning to flooding on the third basement of the William Cullen library where the archives are kept. Not all the archives were affected but the extensive collection of press cuttings used by researchers was damaged by water.
The collection covers the periods from 1940 to 2000 and captures a lot of the South African history. They have been removed from the original holding area to be dried.
“In the event that they are too badly damaged we will have to try digitise them to make them useful still for researchers,” said Pickover. The Rivonia Trial documents, court papers from the trial of former president Nelson Mandela and others, are safe as they are kept in a separate location.
According to Pickover, the university will be providing dehumidifiers to help lessen the dampness and humidity in the basement. In the long run though the department is looking to move to a new building that will house the archives as the current one is not ideal.
William Cullen library was closed today on the advisement of Property and Infrastructure Management Division as they wanted to inspect the danger of water and electricity to the computers and equipment in the building.
Wartenweiler library was partly closed today. It had two of its floors affected by the flood and kept these blockaded as a safety precaution for the students. They are still in the process of assessing the extent of the damage said Paiki Muswazi, the deputy university librarian.
Wits University was the first to try out the waterless urinal in South Africa.
In 1983 the Switzerland based company Addicom introduced the waterless urinal to South Africa during a time when the country was suffering from a major drought.
Statistics show that before waterless systems, urinals used over six litres of water to flush once. Low volume flush toilets and duel function flush toilets
The first waterless urinals allowed urine to be flushed down into the urinal and straight into the pipe line without the need of any water.
However, these initial models were not favoured as they needed constant maintenance and over time would cause a build up of sludge which gave off a bad odour.
The next model was one that allowed urine to pass through a layer of vegetable oil which would float on top of the waste and block any smells.
The oil may have suppressed the smell, but dirt and grime became an even bigger issue. Later an alternative sealant liquid was used to suppress smell. This still caused grime build up over time.
After extensive research and tests, a solution to the problem was finally found when Addicom introduced the new waterless urinal model in 2000.
The new system was patented the “EcoSmellstop” which used a system which sealed off odour and has self cleansing properties. This made maintenance far better than in the past.
The “EcoSmellstop” works with a drain that has a none-return valve, known as the “curtain valve”. This valve opens when a small amount of liquid is poured onto it and then closes again. Women might see this as being the valve, or flap seen in a porter-potty.
In this way no sealant liquid or water is needed to dispose of urine.
Wits University was the first to experiment the invention of the “curtain valve” which was introduced in 2003.
Within the first three years of its introduction, around 100 000 “EcoSmellstop” urinal, curtain-valve systems have been installed throughout South Africa. This allowed municipalities to also provide toilets in areas where it would otherwise be very expensive to do.
The waterless urinal was a success and now many public areas such as taxi ranks, schools and universities country wide, make use of this low maintenance, cost effective solution. Wits just happened to be one of the first.