Water in South Africa: A System in Crisis

Water is life, it makes life, and without it we will all die. However following on from this is the fact that the water must be of a quality that sustains an abundance of diverse life forms. How many streams and rivers would you cup your hand in to drink from today? How many rivers would you not swim in? The comparison must be made to what we have experienced in the not so distant past where we used to swim in these rivers and dams and perhaps even drink from them.


South Africa as we know is a water scarce country and receives only 52 percent of the global average rainfall. This figure is exacerbated by our high evaporation rates which makes us one of the 30 driest countries in the world. We are constrained by physical features which leave us with no large navigable rivers and 4 major basins being shared with neighbouring countries. Add to this the pressures that some of our largest urban and industrial developments are in positions where water demands now exceeds natural availability. Already 98% of the countries water supply has been allocated. By (or even before) 2025 it is believed we will have not more water to allocate and will start falling into a water deficit.

With this as what has gone before, we need to now factor in the severe impacts that Climate change is and will have on our future water supply. It is anticipated that climatic condition changes will modify water resource availability. Conditions will be extreme, so droughts and floods will become more severe. The east coast is expected to become wetter while west of the escarpment will become increasingly dry.

As if climate change was not enough, we have alien invasive species, a rapid loss of species, pollution, illegal abstraction, mining and land transformation which are cumulatively degrading our water.

South Africa is seeing rapid land transformation. Increased populations, poor land management and planning have left South Africa with less than 50% of its wetlands, the kidney of the land. It acts as a spounge, slowly releasing water throughout the year; it filters the water at the same time, reducing sediment load and pathogens.

In the Department of Water Affairs’ commendable Green Drop assessment of the countries waste water treatment situation it was found that out only 7.4% of the countries waste water treatment works (WWTW) received Green Drop certification. Extrapolating this across the approximately 986 WWTW leaves us with significant reason to be concerned about the state of our rivers. A major contributing factor to this is the skills shortage that exists at management and operational levels which has meant that effluent from the WWTW are discharged into rivers in an untreated state. An example is that 87 municipalities do not have access to an in-house engineer. With infrastructure crumbling from the lack of infrastructural investment plans and skills, there is an average of 3.3 sewage pipe blockages per kilometer of sewage pipe (10 times the global average).

Current and past mining practices are an imposing threat to our environment. However the contamination of fresh, clean water into a hazardous liquid is a reality with terrifying consequences and costs. Acid mine drainage which is occurring on a grand scale in the Rand basin is exceedingly difficult to contain and its impacts will be felt throughout the catchment. Water is decanting at an alarming rate (the West Rand Goldfields are decanting between 18 and 36 ML/day) with an unqualified volume escaping downstream. Some of the water has a pH of 2.2 (the normal pH is 7.3). In an example from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment it was found that the combination of the pH and redox driven reactions resulted in a measured uranium concentration of 16mg/l of the Robinson Lake, and resulted in declaring the lake a radiation area. The background uranium concentration in water is 0,0004mg/l. In terms of the DWAF regulations for drinking water, the uranium concentration should not exceed 0.07mg/l and for irrigation, 0.01mg/l. There is now an estimated 50 000 tons of uranium draining into our water on the Highveld annually resulting in many contaminated areas showing dangerously high levels of radioactivity. It is the Oilfants catchment that is severely threatened by acid mine drainage but with increasing mining activity in the Vaal catchment, it won’t be long before this catastrophe could be experienced there.

This together with all the other pollution obviously has huge health implications. South Africa has on average 16,000 people dying from diarrheal related diseases. Unfortunately there are no figures that reflect the many South Africans whose immune systems are already compromised by other diseases such as HIV and AIDS or TB, so the added burden of poor water quality means the figure of deaths attributed this are a lot higher.

Water quality is jeopardizing the core focus of South Africa’s government – Economic growth. Taking the recent case where concerns have been raised around the quality of water that farmers are irrigating their commercial crops from degraded rivers such as the Vaal. These vegetables not only provide South Africans with food but are exported around the world bringing in foreign currencies and sustaining livelihoods of thousands of people. What if the vegetables (and other agricultural goods) fail health tests? What would the implicit impacts be? Some farmers are having to invest in their own water purification systems at considerable expense because their Constitutional right as outlined in Section 24, entitles them to “having an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being and one that is protected through reasonable legislation and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation.”

The terrestrial water impacts have not left the marine and coastal environment unharmed and without economic impacts. The loss or inability to achieve Blue Flag beaches as a result of an inability to achieve certain criteria including water quality have meant large losses for tourism establishments. Estuarine environments have become increasingly silted resulting in being cut- as well as having optimal freshwater flows into the system. The demise of these traditional breeding grounds for many of the commercially valued fish species is impacting on catches and livelihoods of people.

With 80% of SA’s main riverine ecosystems there has to be impacts to our marine and estuarine environments. This is true 65% of its marine and coastal areas threatened; we can see that we are dealing with a system in crisis. Add to this the rapidly increasing number of threatened plants and mammals (13% and 20% respectively). The recently released 2010 Living Planet report, has warned that “humanity will be using resources and land at the rate of two planets each year by 2013.). There can be no doubt that we are hitting ecological limits at every turn.

As a country we search for a political understanding of the severity of the situation. What are the risks to the country when people opening taps are faced with the reality of empty promises and poor prioritisation? We are currently fast tracking ourselves to an economic, social and environmental disaster. The seriousness of the situation needs to be appreciated by each individual water user in this country. If we want to achieve any of the countries imperatives we need to improve the governance and management of our precious resource, water. WESSA looks to provide support to the public and much needed leadership as we take actions that will shape the environmental future for the benefit of the all.


So what Actions can be taken?

We need to:

  • Reduce, re-use and recycle water
  • Improve demand management
  • Improve land use management practices and decisions
  • Increase monitoring and enforcement
  • Address maintenance issues
  • Build Capacity in the public and private sector by understanding the linkages in water demand management and water conservation
  • Develop a water respectful and responsible culture in South Africa
  • Develop the political will to tackle this issue with the urgency it deserves

Water Rhapsody have the systems to help you reduce your water consumption. Each day you watch your water go down the drain. This shower or bath water could be watering your garden at no extra cost. Grey water reuse is a fantastic way to save water and money. Another alternative is Rainwater harvesting where one uses the rainwater harvested for use in ones home. Gauteng faces a water crisis and rainwater harvesting, as well as reusing grey water, are sustainable solutions.

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