South Africa’s Water and Sanitation Challenge – Navigating the Waters of Sustainability

South Africa is currently facing significant water and sanitation challenges that have persisted for many years. These challenges are complex and they have social, economic, and environmental implications. The government and various stakeholders are working round the clock  to address these challenges through initiatives that aim to improve infrastructure, provide equitable access to clean water and sanitation, and promote sustainable water resource management.

Professor Anja du Plessis an Associate Professor at the University of South Africa responded to questions from allAfrica’s Sethi Ncube about these challenges and suggested possible solutions to these challenges.

What is South Africa’s current situation in terms of water availability?

South Africa’s rank as the 40th driest country in the world, its classification as a water stressed country, as well as more than half of its Water Management Areas (WMAs) experiencing a water deficit, shows that water withdrawals from water users exceed the sustainable level of water supply leading to many parts of the country approaching or have already achieved the point where all accessible freshwater resources have been fully allocated and/or utilised. The country’s water availability reality needs to be acknowledged and addressed as water demand is predicted to outstrip supply by as early as 2025, with some research suggesting that this point was already achieved in 2017.

South Africa’s primary water source is surface water (68%), followed by return flows which support surface water (13%), groundwater (13%), and lastly, other water sources – seawater/ brackish water desalinisation. A significant portion of the country’s surface water resources is also imported from Lesotho (neighbouring country), which supports the economic heart of the country, the Gauteng Province.

It should be noted that, despite surface water sources being the country’s dominant water source, not all of surface water sources are available for withdrawal. Some surface water needs to be retained in dams and rivers to maintain ecological health of a water system or due to downstream requirements. The level of water available also varies throughout the year and from one year to the next. Exploitable regular renewable water in South Africa is estimated to be 10.93km3 per annum.

Importantly, the second largest source of renewable water in the country is treated municipal wastewater which is either directly re-used or released back into the system for downstream use. Desalination of seawater is considered the final source of renewable water, currently constitutes a small portion of the total despite South Africa’s long coastline and can therefore be described as an untapped water source which should be considered.

We therefore need to consider and accept the country’s freshwater realities to know what needs to be addressed, prioritise and implement interventions according to the scale and magnitude of identified pending water crises. Necessary short-, medium and long-term adaptations need to be identified to decrease the predicted impacts of increased climate variability on various water use sectors as well as the impacts on the livelihoods and quality of life of rural settlements and/ or vulnerable communities.

How much rainfall does the country get (different regions and rainfall patterns)?

Freshwater availability in the country varies on a spatial and temporal scale, creating different water-related challenges varying in the type of water challenge/s, spatial extent, and magnitude thereof. Furthermore, South Africa’s climate is classified as arid to semi-arid, with an average annual rainfall of approximately 465mm compared to the global average of 860mm. The total mean annual runoff is an estimated 50 x 109m3 – a mere 50% of the mean flow of the Zambezi River and 3% of the Congo River. The reliable yield of surface water at an acceptable assurance of supply on a national scale is approximately 10 200 million m3 per annum and 70% of this value is stored in the country’s 252 largest registered dams.

From these statistics, South Africa has invested large amounts funds into water storage for the primary purpose of supporting the growing demands of agriculture and municipal/ domestic water use sectors.

The continued increase in water stress across the country have led to water being ranked as the second highest risk for business activities, primarily attributed to uneven distribution of water resources and rainfall, extreme climate and evaporation rates – exceeding the amount of rainfall received – contributing to physical water scarcity. The exact effects of the expansion of areas being classified as water scarce and increased water stress, places increased pressure upon South Africa’s water sectors. The observed negative effects vary in degrees of magnitude and/or frequency, threatening primarily the agricultural and municipal/ domestic water use sectors based on their overall water use. From the given statistics, adaptations towards increased climate variability will therefore have to prioritise factors affecting surface water availability (the country’s biggest water source) to increase the resilience and enhance water efficiency of the country’s primary water use sectors – agriculture and municipal/ domestic water use sectors.

What do climate models say about future rainfall for the different regions?

Climate change is predicted to have various effects on the world’s water resources, varying in frequency and intensity. Increased climate variability will have adverse effects on water availability, quality as well as quantity of water for basic human needs and sanitation. It also poses a great threat for continued human rights to water and sanitation at varying magnitudes.

All water dependent sectors such as food security, both urban and rural settlements, industrial development and energy production, economic growth as well as ecosystems and human health will be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Adaptations as well as mitigation strategies through water management is therefore critical for sustainable development, the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Paris Agreement on Climate Change as well as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Increased climate variability will place increased and additional pressure on South Africa’s already stressed water resources. The projected increase in rainfall variability as well as reduction of average rainfall (specifically in the western part of the country), increase in extreme weather events such as floods and prolonged droughts, will place increased pressure on its water resources in terms of quantity and quality.

Increase in flooding and/or higher pollutant concentrations during drought periods is also expected to increase the risks of water pollution and pathogenic contamination of water resources. Ecosystems will be at risk and the degradation thereof will not only lead to biodiversity loss but also negatively influence the provision of water-related ecosystem services which include, but not limited to, water purification, carbon capture and storage, natural flood protection and the provision of water for primary water use sectors, specifically irrigation agriculture. Uncertainties related to the effects of climate change on water availability and distribution do however still exist especially at a local and catchment scale; however, even with current uncertainties, little disagreement exists in terms of temperature increases, where current trends show heavier precipitation, increased heat as well as prolonged droughts.

Water pollution levels are predicted to reach catastrophic levels in the near future and is corroborated by various research showing through the assessment of long-term data that the quality of rivers and dams have consistently and significantly deteriorated, especially during periods of drought. This consequently poses a huge threat to the country’s water security due to the remediation of polluted water resources being difficult and costly. The continuously expanding populations, growing economies and predicted climate change effects will incessantly exert additional pressure on the quality of water resources and have negative knock-on effects such as reducing crop yields, compromising food security as well as societal health risks. The continued lack of effective regulation in combination with current challenges will lead to an accelerated water quality crisis putting human and ecosystem health at risk and significant costs to the country’s economy.

It is predicted to exacerbate current water demand trends as it usually increases with an increase in temperature. This increase will in turn place significant increased pressure on water authorities, in their attempt to ensure reliable and potable water supply for all sectors by attempting to preserve a sustainable balance between water demand and supply. It is therefore crucial to assess the possible impacts of climate change on water demand to try and guarantee reliable water supply under varied climate conditions with informed proactive water resource management. The collective effects of continued increase in population, rising economic growth and varied consumption patterns together with expanding urban settlements are expected to increase water demand quite significantly. This in combination with a more erratic and uncertain water supply, will have adverse social and environmental effects and likely to cause water stress in areas which are currently experiencing abundant supply.

Climate change will be accompanied by the intensification of water scarcity through changing rainfall patterns and increasing water demand by all major water use sectors. The accompanied extreme weather events, like floods and prolonged droughts, will also have the potential to damage vital water and sanitation infrastructure as well as services in homes, healthcare facilities and food supplies.

What water arrangements/relationships does South Africa have with neighbouring countries?

The joint management of shared water resources in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) contributes to regional integration, socio-economic development, poverty alleviation and the protection of vital ecosystems.

South Africa shares the following four major river systems with neighbouring countries:

1. The Orange-Senqu system is shared with – Lesotho and Namibia,

2. The Limpopo River is shared with – Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique,

3. The Incomati system is shared with Swaziland; and

4. The Usutu/Pongola-Maputo system is shared with – Mozambique and Swaziland.

In terms of transboundary water relations and relationships, South Africa has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which promotes the principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation and the obligation not to cause significant harm, especially to downstream users. It also prescribes to the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Shared River Courses.

The SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses is an instrument of international water law that entered into force in 2003. The overall objective of the Protocol is to foster closer cooperation between the SADC states for the coordinated management, protection and utilization of shared watercourses through the establishment of river basin organizations. It is therefore playing a pivotal role in guiding the establishment of institutional structures capable of jointly managing the scarce water resources in Southern Africa.

The management of internationally shared surface and groundwater resources is of great importance to South Africa. The importance thereof is evident as shared water sources are included in the country’s national laws, namely, the National Water Act of 1998. This Act gives international requirements a priority that is second only to the basic human needs and the Ecological Reserve. This means that no infrastructure may be developed in any transboundary waters without considering the needs, or without the involvement of the other countries involved.

What is current level of water quality again across regions?

The country’s water sources are facing numerous water quality challenges, mainly attributed to human activities and the lack of enforcement of existing legislation and policies. Primary pollution challenges include large volumes of un- or sub-treated wastewater discharged from dysfunctional wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) introducing excessive nutrients, phosphates and coliforms, discharge of industrial effluents into rivers, discharge of mining waste consequently introducing heavy metals into water sources and lastly, agriculture which uses pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers introducing salts, chemicals and other toxic substances into receiving water sources through runoff.

Poor raw water quality has various widespread effects, reducing water resource availability, increases the treatment costs for domestic and industrial use, negatively affects agricultural production and have significant impacts on the ecology of aquatic ecosystems as well as the food-water nexus. Almost half of the country’s WWTWs (waste water treatment works) are in poor or critical condition, causing significant health risks, while a total of 11% is reported to be in a dysfunctional and collapsed state. More than a third of the country’s water is leaking from broken pipes and 83% of the functioning river water quality monitoring sites are detecting tolerable to unacceptable levels of pollution.

Long-term data trends as well as numerous evident water quality case studies across the country clearly show that South Africa’s rivers and dams have significantly deteriorated over the past two to three decades, in some instances, posing serious human health risks, degradation of the environment and even destruction of sensitive aquatic ecosystems. The growing population, increased urbanisation, inadequate maintenance of WWTWs, poor planning and management as well as long-term consequences of major water quality issues such as acid mine drainage (AMD) have all attributed to the worsening situation, in some instances such as the eThekwini municipality and Vaal River, an ongoing sewage crisis with immense social, environmental and economic effects. The most prevalent contamination sources, affecting South Africa’s water resources’ water quality, through point and/or diffuse pollution sources, include:

• Poorly or untreated sewage effluent from failing and unmaintained WWTWs.

• Poor or no access to sanitation services as well as lack of reliable and/or safe water supply especially in informal settlements and/or rural areas.

• Mining and ore processing activities which have led to AMD and in some instances such as the Robinson Lake, radiation risks.

• Industrial effluents which can contain pharmaceutical endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

• Agricultural runoff containing pesticides, fertiliser and sediment, threatening the quality of water resources as well as affecting storage capacity of dams through increased sedimentation and siltation.

The effects of agriculture, industrial developments, mining activities as well as the expansion of urban areas have compounded into large effects on the country’s quality of water and negatively affects the fitness for use. Continued pollution of the country’s already scarce and under pressure water resources have led to the overall deterioration of South Africa’s water resources and created five major water quality challenges namely eutrophication, salinisation, sedimentation, acidification and microbiological pollution, with numerous real- world examples of these immense water quality challenges across the country.

The increase in pollution fluxes into catchments across the country is primarily attributed to increased urbanisation, deforestation, destruction of wetlands, agriculture, industries, mining and energy use, accidental pollution or spillages as well as poor or no wastewater treatment leading to the significant reduction of available water resources. The municipal sewage system is described to be mostly non-functional with more than 90% of the total 824 treatment plants releasing raw or partially treated sewage directly into water resources.

The Vaal River has been reported to be “polluted beyond acceptable levels” by the South African Human Rights Commission, significantly affecting the environment and endangering people’s health. The lack of maintenance of basic infrastructure due to alleged corruption at local government level, lack of capacity and suitable skills as well as overall lack of implementation and enforcement of existing legislation and policy as well as overall lack of accountability, has been identified to be the main contributing factors and driving forces behind the country’s major sewage crisis, other major water quality issues as well as contributing to developing water insecurity.

High non-revenue water (NRW), estimated to be 50% – coupled with current overexploitation and pollution of freshwater resources, high average per capita water consumption as well as overall poor management and planning is further exacerbating the country’s already stressed water resources.

Water pollution levels are predicted to reach catastrophic levels in the near future due to decreased buffering capacity and overall resilience of water systems and is corroborated by various studies showing through long-term data that the quality of rivers and dams have consistently and significantly deteriorated. This consequently poses a huge threat to the country’s water security and future sustainability.

What specific initiatives or strategies is South Africa implementing to address its water shortage crisis in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to water and sanitation?

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) have developed and announced a wide variety of initiatives and strategies to try and address current pertinent water issues as well as the SDGs. These strategies can be found on their website.

What initiatives or policies are there in place to promote water conservation and efficient water use?

A wide variety of initiatives and strategies have been announced by the DWS however, the execution thereof remains to be seen. The country’s relevant legislation which gives the DWS the ability to enforce set standards etc. is governed and driven by the country’s Constitution as well as its main water-related legislation namely the National Water Act (36 of 1998) and the Water Services Act (108 of 1997).

The monitoring and enforcement of water standards and guidelines is however a major issue as there is little evidence of accountability and/or transparency. The continued sewage pollution of the Vaal River is a perfect example of despite having commendable legislation, policies and strategies in place, the absence of actual enforcement of these ultimately leads to continued pollution, worsening water quality to such an extent that it becomes unfit for use and overall unaccountability – setting the trend for further pollution due to non-enforcement, no consequence and overall unaccountability.

What lessons can be learned from other countries that have faced similar water and sanitation challenges?

South Africa needs to invest in increasing monitoring of its water resources. Without monitoring we are unable to establish the real picture of our water availability, quality etc. The City of Cape Town’s avoidance of “Day Zero” through the implementation of various strategies such as increase in awareness of water conservation to create water stewardship within communities. Other strategies include water demand management by addressing poor water efficiency in agriculture and domestic water supply.

The primary lesson is that we need to move away from reactive water management and move towards proactive management as well as the enforcement of our legislative framework which has been acknowledged on a global scale. We also need to move away from simply developing and talking about various strategies and plans and move towards actual implementation. The country does not have the liberty of time due to the continued water degradation and overexploitation over the past two to three decades. A proper action plan with clear short-, medium- and long-term strategies and/ or actions needs to be developed, if not already, and implemented.

Ultimately, South Africa’s freshwater realities need to be acknowledged, followed by less talking to win arguments and start to acknowledge current water crises, try and solve the country’s known freshwater reality instead of treating symptoms. The country’s freshwater reality will remain bleak if actual actions are not taken before 2025.


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