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Water crisis grips Johannesburg: residents face unprecedented shortages

  • Water crisis grips Johannesburg: residents face unprecedented shortages
  • The crisis is blamed on years of poor management and infrastructure neglect.

  • Johannesburg’s non-revenue water is at 46.1% while water consumption is 280 litres per capita per day.

Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and home to close to 6 million people, is grappling with a collapse of its water system, leaving millions of people without access to this essential resource, reports Associated Press. The crisis, exacerbated by hot weather and ageing infrastructure, has led to residents queuing for water.

Municipal tanker trucks are now the lifeline for many residents who struggle to obtain water for cooking, cleaning, and other basic needs. The situation has been labelled as "watershedding," echoing the term used for the practice of going without electricity, loadshedding.

While water shortages are not new to the region, the scale and severity of the current crisis are unprecedented. Even affluent neighbourhoods are not immune, highlighting the widespread impact of the crisis. Blame for the crisis falls on years of poor management and neglect of aging infrastructure. There has been no official declaration of drought, but officials are urging residents to conserve water.

Rand Water is the government entity responsible for providing bulk potable water to urban areas in the province of Gauteng, where Johannesburg is located. It is the largest bulk water utility in Africa and one of the largest in the world, providing bulk potable water to more than 11 million people in several provinces. In a statement from March 18th, Rand Water said that it is experiencing an upward trend in water consumption in most areas of Gauteng Metros, and is engaging with municipal authorities to discuss initiatives to reduce water consumption. “Rand Water systems are currently low but stable”, said the statement. The utility supplies water from a series of interlinked strategic reservoirs, a system that is now at 30% of capacity. High consumption in one area/system places a strain in the entire system.

The crisis has sparked outrage among activists and residents, who question how such a vital service could have been allowed to deteriorate. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) faces mounting pressure as it heads into an upcoming election, with citizens disillusioned by the failure to address critical issues like water services provision.

The 2023 No Drop Report released last December by the South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) found that national non-revenue water (NRW) increased from 37% in 2014 to 47% in 2023. The causes are water leaks, poorly functioning or non-existent water meters, illegal connections and poor billing and revenue collection. It called on municipalities to improve operation and maintenance of infrastructure and repair leaks; improve metering, billing, revenue collection, and debtor management; improve pressure management; and engage in community education and awareness, amongst other measures.

The Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, met with the City of Johannesburg Mayor, Cllr Kabelo Gwamanda on March 18th to discuss the current water challenges and future water supply sustainability plans. According to a DWS statement, planned measures include infrastructure projects to refurbish, upgrade and construct new storage reservoirs and pumps to augment storage capacity, in addition to water conservation and demand management technical interventions, such as leak repairs and meter replacements. Minister Mchunu acknowledged efforts by the City’s water utility, Johannesburg Water, to deal with infrastructure backlogs as well as measures to deal with the current recurring water outages. The Minister said the DWS will work with Joburg Water in packaging some of their key infrastructure projects that require blended finance including from private sector.

Also involved in recent water outages was an incident at the City power’s station supplying the Eikenhof System, struck by lightning. “We sympathise with residents as the intermittent water supply continues, but we want to assure them that the City has committed to attend to various hotspots that are characterised by water shortages for number of days”, said Minister Mchunu.

Johannesburg’s non-revenue water is at 46.1% while water consumption is 280 litres per capita per day, compared to the international average of 173 litres per capita per day. Officials have acknowledged the need for a public awareness campaign on the importance of water conservation and water use efficiency. In 2023 Joburg Water announced plans to switch from open mode to prepaid smart meters, a system already in use for electricity. The rollout started last July. Prepaid smart meters are part of a demand-management strategy that promises to promote water conservation, streamline billing processes, and improve operational efficiency.

As residents endure weeks without tap water, the call for urgent action grows louder. With reservoirs dwindling and demand soaring, proactive measures are essential to prevent further escalation of the crisis. 

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