Wasting water

People spray water over their lawns and cars under the midday sun. Streams meander out of each yard, merging into rivers that flow down the streets.

One householder has watered his lawn so heavily, his feet are fully submerged as he sloshes around his yard. This is Emfuleni, south of Johannesburg, a water-scarce region. But this wasted water is not the real problem. The water bubbling up out of the drains is. It is clean and cold, refreshing on a hot day, but is costing the municipality millions.

A huge problem for Emfuleni, it is also a national issue. As the world’s 30th-driest country and with consumption set to hit 100% of available water soon, South Africa is desperate to save water. With water leakage at half of some municipalities’ water use, it is the area in most need of plugging. The campaign comes from the top.

In his last State of the Nation address President Jacob Zuma said we need to “reduce our water loss by half by 2014” because “we are not a water-rich country”.

Linda Page, the spokesperson for the department of water affairs, said national losses were “steadily rising” and stood at about 35% of supply. That includes leakage and water that people do not pay for. If people do not pay, the municipality still has to foot the bill.

The National Planning Commission’s vision for 2030 also targets leakage. It proposes a reduction in national business-as-usual water levels by 15% by 2030. Programmes to reduce water leakage are an integral part of the vision.

In Emfuleni, the “place of water” along the Vaal River, an 80-year-old water system, coupled with poor connections inside people’s yards, pushed the municipal water bill to R150-million a year. Even at 2am three million litres of water were going into the system every hour (it takes 2.5-million litres to fill an Olympic-size pool).

But an ingenious solution has made a huge difference. In a public-private partnership a R10-million plant was built to lower the pressure of the national water supply coming into the municipality. Because fewer people use water at night, the pressure increases and leaks sprout from the pipes.

The new plant — the biggest in the world — means less pressure and less leakage and a saving of about R30-million a year. Reduced water consumption has also lowered carbon emissions by 12 000 tonnes a year as less pumping uses less electricity.

A similar project, built in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town in 2001, is saving enough water to fill an Olympic-sized pool every two hours. It is in previously disadvantaged areas where the greatest problems lie, said Dr Ronnie McKenzie, the director of WRP Consulting Engineers in Pretoria.

A leaks expert, he said decades of neglect are now manifesting in leakages and other problems.
The savings in Emfuleni are going straight into improving water infrastructure, said Yeyakhe Mgudlwa, municipal customer relations manager for its water services.

Teams are also in place to fix leaks as quickly as possible. But huge losses still occur in people’s yards. They have old fittings and old toilets, he said.

Householders told the Mail & Guardian they could not afford new fittings. In some cases you have to jump over the deep ditches formed by the water leaking out of cisterns and taps in people’s yards.

With houses paying only a small flat rate of R28 whatever their water consumption, there is no incentive to save water, said Benny Mahlangu, the deputy municipal manager for basic services.

Page said: “People generally do not care how much water is lost in their yards” when they “are not paying for the water used”. Education is critical to change habits, said Mahlangu.

Consumption cannot stay the way it is. Although a lack of awareness is a problem for this municipality, it also affects the millions who live downstream. Emfuleni lies in the Orange-Senqu catchment area (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia).

Any water saved here can be used elsewhere, said Dr Horst Vogel, the programme manager of the Southern African Development Community Transboundary Water Management Unit for GIZ (Germany’s foreign-development programme). But even with projects like this, there will still be unavoidable losses.

McKenzie said his research showed an average national loss of 50 litres per connection per day. But in some cases, households are using more than 1 000 litres a day. There are even cases of houses in poor areas using 200 000 litres a month. That so much of this is at night, when people are asleep, shows leakage, he said.

Johannes Buckle, the owner of water engineering company Cobeng, said an “inordinately small” amount of funding was allocated to maintenance. He also said there were too few skilled people left in municipalities and intervention by national government is critical to arrest the decline.

Over nearly a decade at Rand Water, he said, the utility did a great deal of water system maintenance, but the funding was supposed to come from municipalities’ own budgets. Although this funding was minimal, a properly managed water system could generate additional income.

Government and the national treasury also view reducing leakage as a way for municipalities to save money, said the department’s Page. Both are pushing municipalities to make it a priority.

McKenzie said that although South Africa has a strong water infrastructure that can operate at high pressure, without maintenance, this will quickly degenerate to developing-world levels. But with knowledgeable people like Trevor Manuel steering things, he said, there is “light at the end of the tunnel”.

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