Johannesburg’s water crisis is getting worse – expert explains why the taps keep running dry in South Africa’s biggest city

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Johannesburg’s water crisis is getting worse – expert explains why the taps keep running dry in South Africa’s biggest city
Credit: © Reuters.

Since the latter part of 2023 hardly a week has gone by without some residents of Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, losing their water supply. Notices of planned outages from the local water authority are a common occurrence. Unplanned water shutdowns also happen regularly.

The entire city has been affected – shanty towns, less affluent and more affluent parts of the city. The Conversation Africa asked geography professor Craig Sheridan, director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, what’s gone wrong.

Why don’t Johannesburg citizens have enough water?

The water allocation for each province is based on the amount available in the dams (which must also supply our future needs) and the number of people in that province. Currently the Vaal Dam is 70% full.

Rand Water – the area’s bulk water supplier – buys the water from the Department of Water and Sanitation, which will only sell a certain amount to it. Rand Water takes water mainly from the Vaal Dam – the region’s biggest – and treats it to potable quality. It then sells the water to Johannesburg and Pretoria (and other cities and towns) which are in Gauteng, the smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces and its industrial heartland.

The cities sell the water to their residents through their distribution systems.

Rand Water is not allowed to supply more than the amount set by the Department of Water and Sanitation. But there is a mismatch between what’s allocated by the national government and what’s needed on the ground. This is because the national government takes into consideration future needs.

Read more: Johannesburg has been hit by severe water shortages: new plan to manage the crisis isn't the answer

Why can’t new dams be built to supply more water?

This is the plan. But the next phase (Phase 2) of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme is eight years behind schedule. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is a multinational project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. Work on the dam design started in 2017 and tender design was completed during 2020. Construction is expected to be completed with commissioning expected in 2028.

This eight-year delay roughly coincided with a period during which the population of Gauteng grew from 12 million to 15.1 million people. In 2023 the province had the same amount of water storage for a population that had grown by over 3 million people (or 25%), because the dam was not built.

There is now substantially less water for everyone in the province, including residents of Johannesburg.

Why are Joburg residents struggling to get water?

The City of Johannesburg is running its finances poorly. The maintenance bill for water infrastructure is R2 billion (US$105 million) per year, but only R1 billion (US$52 million) is allocated. Maintenance needs are spiralling out of control. The city bills residents for rates, water, electricity, sewage and other services. However, the funds received are not ring-fenced. Other projects are competing for the same pot of money.

Because the infrastructure is ageing (for example in the suburb of Parkwood the infrastructure is older than 70 years), the pipes rust and break. When they break, they leak, sometimes releasing very large quantities of water, before they are repaired. When the city responds to requests by residents for repairs, the response, if it comes, is often too little and the job is poorly done. There is little oversight or accountability by the city to ensure the contractors have done the job correctly and the repairs often do not last long.

Also, 15 million people are relying on a system designed for far fewer people. When everyone starts to use water, there just isn’t enough to go around.

There is also an additional factor in this discussion: non-revenue water. This is the term used for water that’s unbilled by the city – in other words, free water, unauthorised consumption or water lost due to leakages. This is water that is supplied by Rand Water, but is essentially “financially lost”.

In South Africa, the government gives a free basic allowance of 6,000 litres per month to every household.

Gauteng has non-revenue water of 49.2% (pages 25 to 27) – in other words, almost half the water that’s supplied to the cities in the province cannot be charged for (by the cities) because it forms part of the basic allowance, is lost through leaks or is stolen. By comparison, Denmark has non-revenue water of about 7%. Chile, also a country with variable climate, has urban non-revenue water of about 32%.

Of the non-revenue water, the leakage portion for Gauteng is half. In other words, for every four litres provided to Gauteng by Rand Water, one litre is wasted through leakage (the city’s fault) and one litre is either given away for free (public good), stolen (the public’s fault), or not accounted for (much harder to allocate blame). This means only half of what is provided can be charged for.

Now to water usage. The average consumption in Gauteng is 279 litres per person per day. This is:

  • more than 60% greater than the global average

  • the highest of any province

  • 27% more than the country average.

Gauteng citizens use too much, the cities waste way too much and there is too much theft of drinking water. The social pact is breaking down as a consequence. This is indicated by the number of civic action groups forming, for example WaterCAN.

To restore this pact, the city needs to focus on non-revenue water, by allocating the correct and appropriate maintenance spend to fix and even renew the water network. At the same time citizens need to seriously consider their own water usage and how to reduce it. The citizens of Cape Town were forced to face the possibility of the taps running dry permanently in 2018 during a five-year drought. Water consumption was drastically limited, forcing people to become very water conscious.

This has to become the new normal if there is to be uninterrupted water supply.

Craig Sheridan has received research funding from the following organisations. The Claude Leon Foundation, the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), The Water JPI, The BMBF, FORMAS and the Water Research Commission. None of these organisations funded this work.

Craig Sheridan is a member of the South African Institution of Chemical Engineers (SAIChE), the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), and the International Water Association (IWA).

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