Malaika Mahlatsi14 March 2024 | 8:29

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Poor water governance at the heart of SA securing this precious resource

The water infrastructure in Johannesburg and South Africa will inevitably fail if there are no urgent interventions to address its perilous state and deterioration, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Poor water governance at the heart of SA securing this precious resource

Residents hold placards during a protest against no access to water in the area in Blairgowrie, Johannesburg, on March 12, 2024. Johannesburg residents go without water for multiple, as old and crumbling infrastructure is blamed. Residents have had to queue up in areas were relief water tankers have been deployed, providing water to the affected areas. Residents are hoping to see the situation resolved in not a distant future. (Photo by WIKUS DE WET / AFP)

In the past few days, the leadership of the City of Johannesburg has been locked in crisis talks over the municipality’s 10-day water outage that is affecting more than 20 suburbs.

In what has been described as the worst water crisis that Johannesburg has faced in years, hundreds of thousands of residents have been without water for almost two weeks.

The cause of the water outage has been attributed to numerous electrical outages at Rand Water.

According to the entity, the Eikenhof facility has been crippled by a power failure. Eikenhof, which is owned by Rand Water, is one of the largest pumping and purification stations in the Gauteng province. It supplies the suburbs of Roodepoort, Hursthill, Crosby, Brixton and Soweto. 

Soweto, home to 1,695,047 residents, is the biggest township in South Africa. The water supply system in Hursthill, Crosby, and Brixton is known as the Commando System, and is one of the biggest systems in the province due to supplying a dense population at a high topographical point.

It is for this reason that problems at the Eikenhof facility have such a devasting impact on water availability and supply in Johannesburg.

As residents of Johannesburg grapple with the debilitating challenges that are brought about by the ongoing water outage, and Rand Water’s promised 100 million litres per day make little impact, municipal officials have been at pains to explain the cause of the crisis.

While the executive mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda, has attributed the problem to weather conditions, claiming that a lightning strike caused the outage, there has also been an attempt to lay the blame at the feet of residents.

Joburg Water has repeatedly insinuated that the water challenges in the municipality are greatly due to high levels of consumption by residents and industries alike. The entity posited that hot weather conditions have caused an increase in demand, causing the problem.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has also alluded to this idea of residents as the cause of the crisis, positing in a statement that one of the key drivers of water challenges in Johannesburg is water theft through illegal connections, mainly in informal settlements.

While the department also noted other factors that include an increase in the frequency of water main bursts, reduction in water storage capacity due to leaking and the isolation of reservoirs, there is consistently an attempt by the government to present South Africa’s water challenges as being mainly the result of physical scarcity.

Physical scarcity occurs when the demand of a population exceeds the available water resources within a region. In the context of South Africa, this is largely driven by the climatic conditions of the broader southern African region, which is semi-desert.

The World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal describes the topography of South Africa as varying from desert to semi-desert, with approximately half of the country classified as arid or semi-arid. And while this is certainly an important factor, the causes of water insecurity in our country are largely systematic. Furthermore, they are an outcome of poor water governance.

Poor water governance has been evident in the City of Johannesburg for the last two decades. Over the years, there have been numerous periods where the municipality has imposed water restrictions.

Some of these restrictions have lasted for weeks, with many communities affected by empty taps. In a study titled Water Interruptions in Gauteng, published by the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) in 2022, the state of water infrastructure in the Gauteng province is laid bare. 

The study indicates that most of the province’s water infrastructure is ageing and in a state of dysfunction. This deterioration is evidenced by the exponential increase in water interruptions. According to the report, 30% of Gauteng’s residents reported frequent water interruptions in 2017/18. That percentage increased to 33% reporting frequent interruptions in 2020/21.

Furthermore, the City of Johannesburg showed a staggering 10 percentage point increase in frequent water interruptions between the 2017/18 and 2020/21 survey.

My Master of Science (Water Resource Science) degree, undertaken at the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, with funding from the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality, analyses the equity dimensions and governance drivers of water security challenges in the City of Tshwane.

The findings of the research indicate that while physical scarcity is a factor, the most impactful factors relate to water governance, which is an aspect of broader political and administrative governance.

While the City of Tshwane is the study area, the secondary literature engaged with indicates that the challenges faced by Tshwane are not unique to the said metro. They can be gleaned in nearly all municipalities across the country – including Johannesburg.

The ageing water infrastructure in the country is the result of maintenance failures and challenges of corruption and maladministration. Also at play is a lack of planning and management of growing water demands due to increased population, migration, and the expansion of settlements. In 2022, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering published the SAICE 2022 Infrastructure Report Card for South Africa report, which showed that the country’s water infrastructure had deteriorated to the point that it was at risk of failing. 

The water infrastructure in Johannesburg and South Africa will inevitably fail if there are no urgent interventions to address its perilous state and deterioration.

Several interventions must take place.

Firstly, there must be an expansion of water plants. In Gauteng, these must include the Temba Water Purification Plant in the City of Tshwane, as well as plants across Johannesburg.

Secondly, the strengthening and co-ordination of institutions for water security is critical.

Thirdly, the setting of water allocation ceilings in Gauteng municipalities must be prioritised to deal with the inequitable distribution of water that favours industries at the expense of residents.

And finally, there must be investment in alternative water sources and tools for water conservation.

These recommendations are only possible with strong political will on the part of the municipal, provincial and national governments.

Without it, the crisis facing the residents of Johannesburg will become the norm across the country. It almost is.

Malaika is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She is a PhD in Geography candidate at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.