South African cities hit by water scarcity

Saturday November 16 2019

A year ago, Cape Town made headlines as the city faced “day zero” – when there would be no more water left to pump.

Restrictions on consumers and penalties for overuse helped stave off “day zero”.

Now the same scenario is looming for Johannesburg,  Pretoria and many other cities.


Water scarcity is a major climate change result hitting this and many other countries.

A combination of population growth, mass immigration and the opportunities Johannesburg offers means the metropolitan area has grown tremendously.


There are 5.635 million people in greater Johannesburg, with several million more in surrounding towns, plus another 2.6 million in greater Pretoria and millions others in its surrounding.

With formal and informal housing springing up around the Johannesburg-Pretoria nexus, population concentration has climbed along with the hard numbers.

All this has put pressure on the overstretched infrastructure like water reticulation.

Many slums have never had proper water provision or effluent removal – hence the ongoing “service protests”.

Much water is lost to broken pipes since greater Johannesburg is geologically active and heavily mined.


There are accidental breaks, leaking taps, poor conservation practices, poor effluent disposal and contamination of feeder systems.

There are also human failures like not spending money on proper maintenance of sewerage systems and preferring sponsorships of political or favour-currying events.

With looting and miss-expenditure of public funds at the local level, water provision was rendered marginal, even before the advent of the summer.

A drought that has pushed annual average temperatures through the southwest southern Africa to more than two degrees Celsius is spreading east and north.

In the northwestern areas, Kalahari desert is rapidly encroaching on what was a vast semi-arid zone, the Great Karoo, where in one area a herd of 480,000 sheep has been reduced to 20,000.

The upper-level water-laden tropical winds that have been kept away by the southern African landmass rising summer temperatures, when they do arrive, spill their loads of water almost all at once onto a parched earth.


This causes flash floods, soil erosion, deaths, livestock losses as well as infrastructure damage such as what took place in KwaZulu-Natal.

Such violent storms also produce tornadoes. That happened for two days consecutively in KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

There are studies to illustrate the “perfect storm” of water scarcity and climate change facing major urban hubs.

Johannesburg uses 530 million more litres of water than it is allocated per day.

Taps and reservoirs in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State and North West provinces are running dry.


In 2009, Johannesburg’s planned supply was given 10 years before demand exceeded the supply upper limit.

Experts then believed the simplest solution was to build another dam in Lesotho for which a feasibility studies had been done in 2005. However, the dam was never built.

Then there is the culture of non-payment. During apartheid years, not paying for services like electricity and water was considered part of the struggle against the minority rule.

The culture has never gone away. Around $1 billion is owed by water consumers to municipalities.

Emergency measures are likely to be extended, largely focusing on tanker deliveries.


As if he hasn’t enough on his plate, President Cyril Ramaphosa must find the time, energy and money to address what is rapidly becoming a national emergency.

One wonders how Ramaphosa is supposed to make it rain or magically find water, when the world is getting hotter and drier.

Chris Erasmus writes from Pretoria. [email protected]