Failing infrastructure, inadequate investment, bad management and decay pose a threat to SA’s water systems, some of which are on the brink of collapse.

In a water-scarce country with erratic and unpredictable rainfall, insufficient management of water resources is life-threatening.

SA’s average rainfall is 500mm/year, compared with a world average of 860mm. Also, rainfall in SA is uneven, with the wettest areas a long way from industrial, urban and farming areas.

But an under-resourced national ministry and local municipalities – many of which do not have the capacity – manage the bulk of SA’s water infrastructure, including dams, canals, pipelines, tunnels and monitoring and treatment facilities.

Water affairs minister Edna Molewa tells the FM that the department needs R668bn over the next 10 years to finance the growing backlog in infrastructure. This is up from R573bn and covers agriculture, sanitation, operations and maintenance, which were previously excluded from the tally.

The department is able to budget for an estimated R38bn/year, leaving a funding gap of R34bn/year. Presumably part of this will be funded through private-sector participation (see page 35).

Growing demand and stagnant supply are endangering indispensable water systems. The Vaal River, for example, is under strain from theft, leaks and pollution from acid mine drainage. It supplies 45% of the population and 60% of the economy. This includes residents in Gauteng, North West and the Free State; as well as mines, power stations and other industries.

Over 75% of water assets were constructed between 1960 and 1990. The department says the lifespan of infrastructure ranges from 10 years (for small motors) to 300 years (for dam walls). It admits that infrastructure is on average 39 years old, making the need for replacement dire. Some infrastructure has been in use for over 100 years.

Infrastructure run and owned by national government has a replacement value of R139bn and a current value of R54bn, depreciating at R1,4bn/year.

A dire picture is painted, but does this mean that SA is at risk of running dry?

The reason for this anxiety lies with growing water demand against a system that is unable to keep up. Without new infrastructure or new methods of collection, running dry or at the least severe shortages are a possibility.


Molewa cautions against panic despite comments by her deputy, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, about SA’s risk of running dry by 2050. “It’s a big ‘if’,” says Molewa, “and there are many initiatives to prevent that kind of scenario.”

SA’s water crisis is compounded by interrelated problems, says Chris Herold, a member of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) council. His main problems or “showstoppers” are:

Decaying infrastructure;

The mismatch between water supply and water demand;

Failure to achieve demand management targets;

Water theft;


Deteriorating water quality; and

The loss of essential skills.

The country will have sufficient water to meet its needs beyond 2025, provided corrective measures are put into place in time, says the Wildlife & Environment Society of SA’s Garth Barnes.

“It seems that water quality is rapidly deteriorating across the country with about 82% of our rivers threatened and 44% critically endangered. This [is] not an infrastructural problem but a managerial one,” says Barnes.

He emphasises management of SA’s bulk water infrastructure, which is the responsibility of the department of water affairs (DWA). That is where most of the planning failures have occurred, he says. The department has allowed the infrastructure to deteriorate by not safeguarding it against abuse.

One of the biggest threats is the estimated 30%-37% of water supply lost through leaks, at a cost of R11bn/year. Despite efforts to get municipalities to plug the leaks in their systems, there has been little improvement over the past decade.

Security of supply from the Vaal River system is also of increasing concern. Herold believes officials at the DWA have not planned properly, and that the delays have put pressure on the system.

“At some point in the past, a decision would have needed to be taken to bring the construction of the Polihali Dam forward. This never happened, and it’s expected to be completed only in 2020.”

The dam, to be built in the mountains of Lesotho, is part of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The project was initiated in 2010, after the authorities woke up to the mismatch that could result from increasing demand but static supply. A 2020 completion date would have been fine if such a vast quantity of water was not being lost to leaks and theft.

These concerns are echoed in numerous reports that identify a disturbing mismatch between water demand and bulk infrastructure development. The SAICE 2011 report card on infrastructure says users of the Vaal and Umgeni systems could face water restrictions for the next decade. It attributes this to the failure of the department to react in time.

Fortunately, rainfall levels have been high, providing some relief. But adequate infrastructure is needed to help SA cope with drought. Already, water resources have been fully allocated and no additional water can be safely counted on for industry, agriculture or domestic use before 2020. If a serious drought occurs before then, Herold says water restrictions will have to be imposed.

The lack of flexibility in the system has led to parallels being made with Eskom and the supply constraints that resulted in blackouts in 2008.

National planning commissioner, professional engineer and a former director-general at the DWA, Mike Muller, believes Gauteng will still have adequate water in 2018, despite drought, provided that it is able to limit the volume lost to leaks and discipline farmers who draw water illegally.

Muller says the risk extends to surrounding areas. Mines in the North West, power stations in Limpopo and their surrounding communities rely on waste water from the Vaal system. Shortages could therefore also have a dramatic effect on the future of mining and energy in the Waterberg.

His concerns about water theft are shared by many analysts. It has taken Molewa’s department four years to identify which farmers have been illegally using water along the Liebenbergsvlei River, which feeds into the Vaal system.

Molewa says lack of accurate data prevented the department from identifying any of SA’s biggest water users. Her department believes that 60% of water is allocated to agriculture, but she says this figure is not based on accurate assessments.

To respond to theft, the department has conducted a validation and verification exercise to gather information about the Vaal’s water users. Molewa says the problem is close to resolution. The department asked the “Blue” Scorpions, the police unit set up to protect scarce water resources, to investigate theft.

Molewa says the problem will be addressed by December. After that, similar systems will be extended to the rest of the country.

Agri SA supports the department’s efforts to eradicate water theft from the Vaal River. But its director of natural resources, Nic Opperman, says the department also needs to take responsibility for the problem. It has had no systems to monitor water users along the Vaal River and Vaal Dam.

There are efforts, particularly through the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), to keep up with bulk water requirements. Between 2008 and 2010, the department spent R5,1bn on water and waste water infrastructure projects. It oversees 151 water and waste water infrastructure projects, for which the estimated cost of investment is R70,9bn.

The TCTA, the department’s bulk raw water infrastructure agency, is investing R45,3bn. It works on projects like the R2,1bn Mokolo-Crocodile Water Augmentation Project, which will transfer water from the Mokolo dam to the Medupi power station near Lephalale in Limpopo.

But Herold has raised concerns about decay in conveyance systems. De Hoop Dam in Limpopo is about to be completed without conveyance systems to get the water to mines and communities in the water-stressed Olifants River catchment area. A two-month strike at the dam site is also jeopardising the project ahead of the rainy season, which threatens to delay delivery of water by another year, Herold says.

The condition of canals that transport water is sometimes dismal, with heavy leakages reported.

Canals planned for use during drought conditions have been allowed to fall into disrepair when not in use, says Herold.

“We don’t need those canals at the moment but, in a year of drought, that neglect will catch up with us,” he says. He does, however, commend the department for starting the long overdue repair of the Vlakfontein canal conveying water from Grootdraai Dam to Sasol and Eskom power stations.

Molewa acknowledges the problems at old facilities like Taung Dam in North West, which was built for recreational and agricultural use. The DWA has begun to draw water for domestic supply but that is not supported by the infrastructure.

She says De Hoop Dam is an example of better planning, and was designed with a complete system in mind. The water treatment plant is complete. The pipeline between Steelpoort and domestic users in Sekhukhune is already done, and further phases are planned.

But it is simply not enough.

The SAICE report card gives the infrastructure administered by the DWA a D rating. This is based on “further deterioration in the ageing bulk water infrastructure portfolio as a result of insufficient maintenance and neglect of ongoing capital renewal”.

The assessment says the department has failed to prevent salination in key river systems and development of bacteria in dams and rivers. This has compounded the cost of water treatment.

Dams also require urgent refurbishment. Moreover, the level of water supply in some systems has fallen well below the 98% assurance of supply recommended in the department’s National Water Resources Strategy.

The situation is likely to become worse before it improves, owing to the long lead times required for the development of new supply schemes.

Were things to get really bad, water consultant Bill Pitman says importing more water is an option. Water from Lesotho is expensive, but not priced exorbitantly. However, were SA to look further afield, to the Congo for example, the situation becomes trickier. Cost and political insecurity are potential problems.

Though the national department is expected to take the lead in large infrastructure, local governments have a crucial role to play in the supply of water. However, in several towns the infrastructure is close to collapse. Funding and skills shortages hamper their efforts.

Nevertheless, the department’s annual “blue and green drop” reports paint a picture of improving water quality. To receive a blue drop award, a water system must have scored 95% or higher when assessed against the department’s requirements, which look at drinking water quality, compliance, as well as overall management of the drinking water system; 153 municipalities and 931 water systems were audited over the past year.

This year, SA’s blue drop score was 87,6%, 15% better than last year. The number of blue drop awards rose from 66 to 98. In 2009, when the first report was conducted, only 51,4% of the international standard was achieved. But the 2012 report has flagged 14 municipalities of rural towns for unsafe tap water.

The DWA’s green drop report assesses municipal waste water management systems, and credits well-run systems with a green drop award. Of the 821 waste water systems assessed, 40 were found to be in excellent condition, 78 were in good condition, 243 were average and 143 performed poorly. The report says 317 plants are in a critical condition.

The two reports have become an important source of information for the department in the absence of planning documents like the National Water Resource Strategy, which is supposed to be released every five years, but is already three years late.

The SA Local Government Association (Salga) has long called for institutional reform to deal with this. Bulk water should be purified by water boards, says Salga executive director of municipal infrastructure services Mthobeli Kolisa. Municipalities that are not serviced by water boards are expected to act as a water distributor and catchment management agency, while also investing in bulk water infrastructure.

Molewa tells the FM that the number of water boards tasked with providing bulk potable water to municipalities, mines and other industry will be reduced from 12 to nine. Their mandate will also be expanded to include all municipalities.

Water boards have previously covered urban areas, to the neglect of smaller municipalities, which are least able to do the job themselves. Municipalities that receive water from boards like Rand Water and Umgeni Water are more efficient. Many of the municipalities that have recently improved the quality of their water – and are reflected in the department’s green and blue drop reports – have received assistance from water boards, Molewa says.

But on its own, consolidating water boards is not enough, says former DG Muller. “Municipalities won’t simply pass on their responsibility to a different agency. Many want that job for themselves. So it is a little naive to say that expanding the boundaries of water boards will fix the problem, though it could be part of the solution.”

Finance will also be a major constraint and Muller believes there is a need for a fundamental review of municipal funding for water. Already, there is a high level of debt owed to water boards by municipalities. Unless efforts are made to increase municipal revenue collection or grant funding from central government to support the higher service levels many councils seek to provide, these councils will remain cash-strapped, he says.

But Muller adds that many of the problems at municipal level are not due to lack of financial resources. Just fixing leaks, for example, could save municipalities substantial money.

“The basic problem is the absence of effective management and technical skills. Municipal authorities don’t have the skills that they need and, in many cases, show no interest in acquiring those skills,” he says.

But the malaise goes beyond the municipalities. Though the DWA has been calling for action on water conservation for years, it has still not put in place a programme to help municipalities to implement this.

To address some of the constraints, Salga wants development finance institutions and government to create a municipal infrastructure refurbishment fund, from which municipalities can borrow in order to invest, says Kolisa.

Salga also wants the private sector to partner municipalities. Infrastructure work required in high-income areas could be arranged on a project finance basis, Kolisa says. Revenue raised from its implementation can be used to pay for its cost. High-income areas have good revenue collection, which makes this possible.

He says companies should also be invited to smaller municipalities, where they could , for example, undertake the repair of leaks to reduce water loss. The revenue generated from the cost savings would pay for the repairs.

Kolisa says the blame does not always lie with local government. Some municipalities are expected to expand water supply with no new sources of raw water, which the DWA is supposed to deliver. “The department is supposed to manage raw water provision and distribution from dams to farmers, municipalities and industry. This has not happened.”

He admits that there are constraints of local government’s own making. Municipalities like the City of Johannesburg have established companies to manage their water, which gives it the ability to borrow and invest independently. But most municipalities have not done this, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

To the department’s credit, water access has increased significantly. Between 1994 and 2012, water access rose from 59% to 94,7% of the population. The backlog is 710000 households, mostly in rural areas and informal settlements.

Barnes says access is just one aspect of integrated water resource management, and it cannot be looked at without the full “product” life cycle of storage, transfer, use, recycling and discharge.

Looking purely at the number of people with access to a tap hides the problems, a fact accepted by the department. Molewa says 25% of South Africans with access to a tap do not have “an acceptable level” of service. For example, urbanisation has caused informal settlements to expand rapidly, and water access has not kept pace. Water tankers and communal taps are not the right access levels.

In areas like the former homelands, infrastructure has broken down to the extent where taps have stopped flowing. By 2015, the department’s target is to ensure full access, and acceptable service.

A recently released World Bank report is critical of SA for inadequate provision of piped water to households. But Muller says this is not government policy, and that it is not prepared to go to that extent. The department defines “access” as clean drinking water that is in reasonable proximity to households.

“We need to review basic service standards and their financial implications. Just allowing ‘policy creep’ will simply result in more failing, underfinanced systems,” says Muller. He believes national treasury, the DWA and the municipalities should consider the implications of providing piped access to all households. Higher water use will need increased funding as well as effective municipal management and billing systems. None of this is in place.

One of the department’s biggest problem is the loss of valuable institutional memory to the private sector. The shortage of skilled professionals has affected its ability to function effectively. Molewa believes they get “poached” by companies, including state-owned enterprises.

SA needs to develop the capacity of national water agencies, Muller says, to meet the increasingly complex challenges of water management. However, that capacity is decreasing.

A 2009 report states that the department had a 60% shortage of engineers. More recently, reports suggest the shortage has risen to 80%.

The effect is that the department is unable to perform its basic tasks. It’s a technical department, where engineering services are essential.

At the same time, the number of director posts has multiplied, leaving the department with layers of managers but no-one to do the work, Herold says.

He believes the department still has a functional planning division, but even that is teetering on the edge. “These are the guys that are supposed to look out for the icebergs. They should be plotting the best course of action.” But many leave the department for the more lucrative private sector, leaving an ever-widening middle-management gap.

It is heartening to see an increase in funding made available for infrastructure. However, human capacity constraints within the department threaten to delay its deployment, he says.

“Stringent procurement procedures aimed at curbing corruption have slowed the appointment of contractors from about three to nine months. Though adequate checks and balances are necessary, part of the delay is attributable to the fear of less-experienced or less-qualified managers to approve contracts.”

The problem extends to municipal level. It is estimated that local government authorities have just one in seven engineers compared with what they had decades ago. At smaller, rural municipalities, the situation is believed to be even worse.

Are systems on the brink of collapse? Those in the know say that unless remedial action is taken immediately, this may well be the case.

The SAICE report says SA needs more projects like Durban Water Recycling, a private plant commissioned by the eThekwini municipality in 2001 which supplies 40m litres of recycled water daily. The project is an excellent example of harnessing water conservation technology to meet rising demand.

But the lack of basic information about SA’s water supply is worrying. By law, the National Water Resource Strategy is meant to lay out SA’s current water status and chart its management. But insiders who have seen the current draft of the document say that it fails on that score.

It appears that the department has not updated its estimates of water use since 2000 and does not report how much water is currently available, let alone project future requirements. The concern is that the department cannot manage a resource if it does not have accurate information about it.

This, coupled with the backlog in infrastructure requirements and funding and capacity constraints, paints a worrying picture.




Additional Reading?

Request Free Copy