News Room

SA Water Crisis - Have We Beaten Day Zero?

Author: Jason Snyman
Date: 2018-08-01
Cape Town's water woes appear to have eased for the time being, but is the crisis averted yet, and how can we avoid the dreaded worst case scenario?

You cannot open a tap in countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Chad, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Ghana, India, Rwanda or Bangladesh and just drink the water. Chances are good that it isn't safe. But, in South Africa, you used to be able to do just that – and for a long time, we took it for granted. 

Our personal management of water, in the past and even now, has been frivolous at best. Some of us still disregard its value.
Thankfully, blessed with rain, South Africa has been given a chance to turn things around.

According to the Department of Water and Sanitation, last month, dam levels across the country had collectively hit almost 80% capacity. Dams in Gauteng were ready to burst, recording capacities of 100.3%. The Free State dams were 94.5% full and the North West dams 93.5%.

Department spokesperson, Sputnik Ratau, said: 

Nationally, figures show that the country's dams, with a total capacity of 32,322.6m, are standing at 79.3% compared with 70.9% last year.

So, things aren't looking as bleak as they did going into 2018. But is the water crisis over? After the recent bout of rain, can Capetonians finally breathe a sigh of relief?

The department has urged residents living in municipalities where water restrictions have still not been lifted to continue their conservation efforts. For those living in areas where restrictions have been lifted, it's important to remember all we've learnt. It's imperative that we impose regulations on ourselves, and be mindful of our water consumption. We cannot afford to go back to wastage-as-usual. We're not in the clear yet.

Let's take a look at some of the biggest threats we're still facing.

The State Of Our Dams

Rain fills the rivers, and those rivers flow into dams. According to Ratau, the Western Cape dam levels were recorded at an all-time low three months ago. Now, while the rain lasts, the levels are rising by 5% every week.

In fact, just a couple of months ago, water had to be released into the Western Cape Misverstand Dam from the Berg River just keep it alive. The Misverstand, recently, was spilling over at 157.4% capacity.

The Mpumalanga province dams have also doing well, sitting at just over 80% capacity. Last month, three North West dams hit 100%, as well as six dams in Limpopo. Dams exceeding full capacity included Zaaihoek in KwaZulu Natal, Saulspoort and Welbedacht in the Free State.

Ratau also said that the system contributing to the Vaal River was fully functional. There were 14 tributaries pouring into the Vaal Dam.

As we all know, though, things could change at the drop of a hat. Between climate change, our over-dependency on surface water and gross mismanagement of our resources, we could still run dry. 

Day Zero Is Still Looming

It may indeed appear as if Cape Town's drought has finally come to an end. The citizens have avoided Day Zero, and will likely continue to do so all through the year to come. For the most part, they're still adhering to the restrictions.

Many South Africans don't realise that we're only one dry rainy season away from a complete disaster. All of our water has been allocated, and until the desalination plants are up and running we have no new sources.

We're already among the 40 driest countries in the world.

Day Zero hasn't been beaten, only delayed, and this has only been possible thanks to water saving efforts, higher tariffs and improved control of agricultural use. If we revert back to wasting water, Cape Town could run dry. If Cape Town runs out of water, the citizens might choose to move to other cities. This relocation, in turn, will create greater water usage in other parts of the country. Before we know it, we've got a national emergency on our hands.

The public, thankfully, is more aware and better educated than ever before. The Day Zero campaign should be viewed as an early warning for the entire nation.

Both government and the citizens of South Africa need to improve and become proactive. Respect water, disrupt this trend of wastefulness.

Agriculture Could Take A Knock

We need water to support the agricultural sector – which is already suffering. According to the Chief Executive of the Water Research Commission, Dhesigen Naidoo, if our agricultural yield would drop by just 10%, it would eliminate 20 000 jobs and decimate the farming communities.

A Day Zero scenario, in rural areas, would be the blow that finally brings the urban areas to its knees. The projected domestic water demand and supply advisory report from earlier this year details the cataclysmic implications of such a scenario.

Failure To Further Reduce Water Usage

According to Africa Check, the average person in South Africa uses 235 litres per day. Globally, the average amount of water usage per person is 173 litres per day.

Consider then, the amount of people who collect water from the outskirts of the city, or from natural springs. It begs the question, why is our consumption still so unbelievably high? The answer comes down to wastefulness. One could easily blame it on the tactlessness of wealthier households, which use a lot more water. Or the ignorance of poorer citizens, who leave the public taps running all day.

South Africans, in general, have been careless, and we're living beyond our resources.

Government Incompetence

Of course, government incompetence shoulders a large percentage of the blame. The Department of Water and Sanitation used to publish what was called the Blue and Green Drop reports – which detailed the condition of our treatment facilities. It's been years since the government has released these reports, and it has become apparent that the department has been trying to conceal the ANC's mismanagement of the national water infrastructure.

Last year, AfriForum discovered a 100% increase in the number of facilities which had failed to meet national water quality standards. Now, two thirds of our local treatment plants aren't up to scratch.

As a result, nearby communities face substantial health risks.

Municipalities Are In Trouble

As anybody who's ever driven an Opel will testify, if you don't keep up with the maintenance, the cost of finally fixing the problem becomes unmanageable. It's the same with our infrastructure.

According to the department itself, over 40% of our municipal water is lost through leaks. Since this water cannot be billed, it's considered non-revenue. We lose R7 billion in water revenue each and every year. Even though the city of Cape Town, through increased efficiency and pressure demand management, has brought that loss down to 15%, it wasn't enough.

In total, municipalities carry a debt of R43 billion to various creditors. Even the Department of Water and Sanitation is in debt by R4 billion.

This isn't entirely their fault, though. According to the Treasury, households owe R83 billion to municipalities, commercial entities R27 billion and numerous state institutions R7.4 billion.

Municipalities all across the country, especially the smaller ones, no longer have the ability to repair or replace out-dated and crumbling infrastructure. The department has estimated that in order to perform all upgrades, it would cost up to R 1 trillion.