Learning from Gauteng's water crisis '“ time for society as a whole to take responsibility

24 October 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Woman collecting water in rural Azerbaijan by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldbank/8206741606/in/set-72157608066422023" target="_blank">Alison Kwesell for the World Bank</a>.
Woman collecting water in rural Azerbaijan by Alison Kwesell for the World Bank.

Parts of Gauteng experienced severe water shortages in September this year. Dr Kirsty Carden and Lloyd Fisher-Jeffes from UCT's Urban Water Management research unit interrogate what can be learnt from this short-term crisis, and what can be done about it going forward.

Over the last two weeks we have followed with interest the various press responses to Gauteng's water crisis. From warnings of future threats to the country's economic growth, to blame shifting and outright politicking, these responses have for the most part avoided the real issue at hand. Now that the immediate crisis is over, it is time to reflect on what lessons may be learnt. By all accounts this current short-term crisis - or water shortage, as referred to by officials - was caused by the theft of power cables, which led to pump failures thus preventing reservoirs from being filled. While these ongoing thefts are unacceptable and highlight government's inability to respond to such incidents, the real issue that this crisis has highlighted is the lack of resilience in our urban water supply systems; ie their capacity to withstand and recover from external shocks and adapt to changing circumstances. In this case the failure of the electricity supply system resulted in three major cities experiencing water shortages; considered the worst in 110 years. Fortunately, once power was re-established the crisis was solved, but what about shocks that we cannot solve so quickly?

The crisis in context

South Africa is a water-scarce country - estimated to be the 29th driest country in the world - and is currently over-exploiting its renewable water resources on a national level, increasing the vulnerability of water systems to shocks like drought. This will likely be worsened by the impact of climate change. The potential human development and economic consequences of water shortages in the country are well-known and have been acknowledged in strategy and policy documents such as the National Development Plan and the National Water Resource Strategy (2nd edition).

However, little progress has yet been made in terms of improving water resource planning and management in order to avert an emerging national water crisis. South African municipalities commonly struggle to meet the water demands of their residents; Grahamstown, Butterworth and Beaufort West are other recent examples of this. While the reasons for these failures may differ, the impacts are very similar. When a municipal supply fails, what do we do? How do we respond?

The role of individuals

Firstly, we need to take heed of warnings and learn from experiences so that when there is a national water crisis - where water and not electricity is in short supply - the country is prepared. This involves both individuals and municipalities taking responsibility for how water is used and by building resilient systems.

Individuals could start by reducing the amount of water they use. A recent study in Cape Town has shown that wealthier households are using up to 300 litres per capita per day (ℓ/cd) for indoor uses - excluding watering gardens! This is well in excess of the World Health Organisation's minimum standards (20ℓ/cd for basic access and 50 ℓ/cd for intermediate access), as well as that which the government supplies as part of the Free Basic Service (200 litres per household per day). Reducing demand may be as simple as using low-flow shower heads, installing dual-flush toilets, using xeriscaping techniques in gardens, etc.

Considering different water sources is the next step; rainwater harvesting, for example, is often not considered as it cannot supply water throughout the year, and is often more expensive on a per kilolitre basis than municipal supply. In the event of water shortages, however, a full rainwater tank could provide storage for a household to survive a number of days without municipal water. A rainwater tank could also be used as storage in the event of scheduled 'load shifting' - where supply is provided at fixed intervals and water is shifted from areas with normal supply to those without - allowing properties to store sufficient water until supply is returned. There are further options in terms of diversifying sources, such as using greywater for flushing toilets and irrigating gardens.

The role of government

Local government (including water boards and water utilities) can also do more, particularly in terms of considering alternative sources of water - and not only focusing on desalination (eg for coastal areas), trans-boundary water schemes (eg Lesotho Highlands), or new dams. Desalination is energy intensive and has pollution impacts from brine disposal. Even if this energy is generated in a green manner, why would an energy-stressed country choose to use this valuable resource on water? Trans-boundary schemes, especially those that cross national borders, add potential for political and diplomatic 'shocks' to water supply schemes. While dams might be a solution in some areas, most significant rivers are already at maximum yield, with few remaining dam sites left in the country.

There are a number of alternatives, however, including the potential for using stormwater, recycled effluent and, if well-protected, groundwater. Local authorities are continuously warned about the need to manage - through water conservation and water demand management programmes - the amount of water lost through physical leakage or commercial losses, also referred to as non-revenue water. While some are taking these warnings seriously, others are not. This is highlighted in the results of a 2012 study by the Water Research Commission (WRC) which found that on average 36.8% of municipal water was unaccounted for, mainly as a result of leaks; this could add significantly to a water crisis.

Attempts to reconcile future gaps in water supply and demand must include policies to support the implementation of alternative approaches to conventional water management which aim to facilitate a change from 'water-wasteful' to 'water-sensitive' environments, and national government needs to get involved by encouraging and supporting these strategies.

In this regard a recently completed WRC study sets out a framework and guidelines for the adoption of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) in South Africa. WSUD is seen as the enabler which could move South African institutions and local authorities closer to meeting developmental goals as set out in the National Development Plan, and the objectives of the Water for Growth and Development, National Water Resource and Climate Change strategies, by way of its philosophy of "mitigating water scarcity and improving water quality, thereby protecting ecosystems; through the development of water sensitive urban areas (for all) that are sustainable, resilient and adaptable to change, while simultaneously being a place where people want to live."

The recent water shortages in Gauteng are symptomatic of a short-term crisis as a result of theft and criminal damage to electricity infrastructure. They are, however, a serious warning of what is to come should we as a country ignore the numerous signs pointing to an impending water crisis. We must focus on building resilient, adaptable, water-sensitive settlements throughout the country; where society as a whole uses water optimally, does not waste this precious resource, and acknowledges its full economic value. It is time for everyone to share responsibility.

Story by Kirsty Carden and Lloyd Fisher-Jeffes from UCT's Urban Water Management research unit

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.