Gauteng, you’re overdue for a water wake-up call
The province had better take action now to avoid a Cape Town-type disaster, report warns
A Gauteng water security report has revealed how close the province is to a potential crisis, with water restrictions on the cards if droughts occur.
But, say researchers behind the Water Security Plan for the Gauteng City-Region report, it is not too late to act, especially if lessons from Cape Town's water disaster are heeded.
“You do not want to be in the middle of a crisis like Cape Town was and then have to try come up with a plan. This is about being proactive, preparing well in advance for natural disasters like droughts and then developing plans to mitigate any potential risks,” said the report’s co-author, Gillian Maree.
The report was commissioned by Gauteng premier David Makhura during Cape Town’s water crisis. It contains detailed steps needed to avoid threats to Gauteng’s water security.
Central to the plan, which identifies challenges Gauteng faces to achieve and sustain water security status, is the rebuilding of collapsed wastewater infrastructure.
Makhura told Times Select water security was a huge concern, with problems already occurring in Gauteng, especially in Emfuleni in the Vaal region and Hammanskraal north of Pretoria.
An estimated 150 million litres of raw sewage currently flows into the Vaal River system every day, according to a recent report by the South African Human Rights Commission.
In Emfuleni the army is deploying troops, including engineers, to repair and rebuild wastewater treatment facilities.
The report follows the establishment of a water security war room by Makhura earlier this year to find solutions to stave off water crises.
The document says critical issues that need to be addressed include: Managing growing supply risks;
Securing sufficient and reliable long-term water supplies through reusing water, rainwater harvesting and treating acid mine drainage;
Establishing effective monitoring, operating and maintenance systems for the Integrated Vaal River System [IVRS];
Simultaneously pursuing demand and supply measures;
Reducing daily water consumption;
Fixing institutional weaknesses, which threaten water security, within municipalities and Rand Water;
Ensuring all settlements, including informal areas, have access to water;
Properly managing stormwater systems; and
Addressing city pollution. The authors say Gauteng citizens consume more than 300 litres of water per person per day, the highest in the country and nearly double the international average. To meet the demand, Rand Water draws more water than it is licensed to by the department of water and sanitation. Also, clean drinking water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is used to flush pollution from the IVRS.
The IVRS – which is predominantly supplied with water from Lesotho – provides water to nearly 20 million people, including industries, in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West, Limpopo and the Free State.
The report points out that 95% of water savings will have to come from Gauteng’s four biggest municipalities, with smaller municipalities having to focus on improving wastewater treatment, “which is a disproportionately large source of pollution”.
Plans must be put in place to educate people and prepare them for water restrictions “as soon as drought risks become evident”.
“Gauteng must never take its water security for granted. The province depends on [water] supplies from a large, highly engineered system and a few local sources that draw water from different river basins across six provinces.
“The climate that supports these supplies is extremely arable with a history of unpredictable multi-year droughts.”
The authors say that as Gauteng’s population and the economy grows, its water security must constantly be reviewed, especially “if our water supply is to continue to sustain people”.
“Cape Town has shown how quickly a large city can enter a crisis if not prepared.”
The plan says that as an immediate priority to address water security, phase 2 of the Lesotho Highland Water Project – construction of the Polihali dam – must be completed on time.
“Until that is done the province will be at risk of supply shortages if there is a prolonged dry period.”
Phase 2 was scheduled to be completed in 2019, but is now only expected to go online in 2026, according to the report.
The plan also calls for the building of water-resilient settlements and getting people to understand how water reaches their homes and workplaces.
“Water is everyone’s business and water security must be a collective effort … Water consumption must be kept at sustainable levels.”
Maree said that while the province was not at yet panic point or heading down a “Cape Town route”, it did not mean Gauteng was not at risk.
“This document shows how we are water wasters using drinking water to fill pools while there are households which don’t have access to water. We must pay attention to our water situation, realise there will be droughts and water restrictions, and that we need to prepare for these challenges and address threats, especially biological ones [sewage leaks].”