South Africa’s already-serious water crisis is being exacerbated by load shedding and this is expected to worsen as the country struggles to bring more electricity generation online. The country will experience at least two more years of persistent blackouts. This is as contingencies are made to maintain its aged coal power fleet which entails taking at least 3 000MW offline at a time.
The situation also brings to the fore the little progress South Africa has made in terms of integrating the planning of water and energy. This is despite the intrinsic connection between water and electricity, also referred to as the “energy-water nexus”. Aligning the planning of energy, water and food have become a major focus for many countries, considering their close relationship. The one cannot do without the other. This is evident in South Africa where power outages now also threaten food security. A case in point is the large impact that load shedding has had on the poultry industry. Factories have been forced to pause continuous operations for as long as half a day at a time.
Eskom on its own uses just over 10 000l of water a second, considering that more than 80% of the country’s electricity is generated from coal-fired power stations. This is equivalent to the amount of water that one South African citizen uses in a year. It also pollutes even more water during its operations. In turn, this electricity is used to extract, convey and deliver water of the appropriate quality for diverse applications. Electricity is then used again to treat wastewater before being returned to the environment. On average, water and wastewater accounts for some 17% of energy consumption in a typical South African metropolitan.
During higher stages of loadshedding, the operation of water treatment plants and pumping stations have been interrupted for extended periods. Without a consistent flow of water, reservoirs, including reserve capacity, run dry leaving areas of the country with limited or no supplies at all.
In particular, Gauteng’s water supply system relies heavily on electricity to operate. This is considering the high elevation difference between the Vaal Dam and the Witwatersrand escarpment. The maximum pump head from the Vereeniging Wastewater Treatment Works over the escarpment is about 320m. For this reason, Rand Water has classified the availability, reliability, reliance and quantity of electricity supply as one of its Top 10 Strategic Risks in an annual report. The extent to which its operations are dependent upon a reliable supply of electricity was already demonstrated in 2018 when a City Power substation exploded and disrupted the operations of Eikenhof Pump Station. This led to widespread water shortages in Gauteng and even parts of the North West, although the problem was solved fairly quickly. However, the more recent rolling blackouts have left areas in the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality and the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, especially in the high lying areas, without water for extended periods.
The City of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality has also warned about the impact of load shedding on its water supply system. Again, communities that are especially at risk of low supplies or none at all are those that are located in high lying and mountainous areas because water cannot be pumped there. Meanwhile, several areas within the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, including Durban, experienced crippling water shortages during stage 5 and stage 6 loadshedding in 2022. This persisted for days on end. In Polokwane, Limpopo, strict water restrictions were implemented during high demand periods due to low and empty reservoirs as a result of rolling black outs. Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape was the first city to be beset by water shedding that was implemented by the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality to avert a crisis during this period.
This is on the back of the severe water and sanitation crisis with which the country has been grappling for many years before the recent persistent load shedding schedule that was implemented in the beginning of 2022. There are numerous reasons for this. Among others, they include the dire state of the country’s water infrastructure; pollution of water sources; and lack of planning for future requirements, not least of which is global climate change and rapid urbanisation. Certainly, endemic corruption in the system is also compounding the challenge and, now well entrenched, it will take time to root out.
Rural areas in most provinces of the country have long struggled with erratic supplies or none at all for extended periods. More than 30% of South African households do not have access to a reliable supply of water. A case in point is communities in Giyani in Limpopo who have had to make do without a reliable supply of water for many years with no real relief in sight. In some provinces, the problem is more prevalent. For example, the North West has long been struggling with widespread water shortages that have also impacted urban nodes, such as Brits. Meanwhile, many areas in the Eastern Cape, including Nelson Mandela Bay, were teetering towards a day zero due to a crippling drought and inadequate contingency planning before the onset of the latest energy crisis. Day Zero is when the taps will run dry in these towns. Cape Town narrowly averted such a scenario when the Theewaterskloof Dam ran dry due to the worst recorded drought in its history. However, there are still many areas of the province that are in the throes of a severe drought. For example, Theewaterskloof Local Municipality was recently forced to implement water shedding for six weeks in Grabouw due to an increase in demand.
Sello Mokawane, Vice President of the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), warns that water shedding will become even more widespread as the water and energy crises deepen. This is considering the extent of the water and energy challenges that the country is facing. It is estimated that the country needs to invest R90-billion per year in water and sanitation infrastructure over the next decade to ensure reliable water supply and wastewater treatment. This includes refurbishing and upgrading of existing infrastructure and the construction of new such systems to support population and economic growth. Johannesburg Water, alone, needs R20-billion to repair its ageing infrastructure. Pressing repairs will cost the water authority R8-billion, for which it has budgeted.
“Water shedding has largely been localised thus far. However, at a national scale, their impacts will be far more severe than loadshedding. Bear in mind that there may not always be alternative solutions for water shedding. It is not as simple as installing a large generator at the last minute to power operations, although more businesses and homeowners are exploring ways of direct reuse/recycling and water outsourcing. However, implementing these solutions at a large scale takes time. The consequences of frequent and widespread water shedding will, therefore, be devastating, considering the critical role that water plays in the social and economic fabric of the country. Water is required to produce electricity from our many coal-fired coal power stations; to grow food crops; and for daily existence. We cannot do without it. It is, therefore, extremely important that we become more prudent in the way in which we use this important resource while there is still an opportunity to do so which is narrowing at an alarming rate. Demand-side management is the quickest way to make an impact. Considering the water-energy nexus, it will also help to relieve pressure on a strained electricity grid and reduce the carbon footprints of houses and buildings,” Mokawane says.
He points out that officially a single South African uses 234l of water a day. This is higher than the global average. Despite the water crisis that the country is facing, South Africa’s per capita water consumption is higher than the global average of 173l. But this is, in fact, not due to citizens’ consumption. Rather it is due to water that is lost between the water treatment plants and the consumer. This is commonly referred to as “non-revenue water”. In South Africa non-revenue water amounts to as much as 41%, largely due to leaks in municipal infrastructure, illegal connections and theft. This state of affairs is arguably the single biggest immediate challenge facing South Africa’s water sector.
There is a complete lack of regulation and enforcement of water installations, it is not surprising then that the vast majority of plumbing installations in the country are non-compliant, as per recent research undertaken by IOPSA. Research by the Water Research Commission has also shown that 60% of plumbing materials being sold are not compliant. A plumbing system that has been installed, maintained and repaired incorrectly is notoriously inefficient, both in terms of water and energy use.
Informed consumers will also make greater use of water efficiency systems. These include high-efficiency toilets, which only use 4,5l per flush compared to 6l per flush of older toilets. Meanwhile, high-efficiency showerheads use less than 7,5l of water per minute. High-efficiency taps have a flowrate of 5,6l. This is compared to the 8,3l flowrate of inefficient taps. Interventions such as these, combined with rainwater and greywater harvesting, as well as groundwater use, helped Cape Town to avert a looming disaster.
However, IOPSA members also know how to correctly install, maintain and repair tankless/instant water heaters, as well as solar water heater and heat pumps. This is in addition to water-efficient technologies, counting greywater and rainwater harvesting systems.
They are also skilled and experienced in connecting storage tanks to main water supply lines so that they fill automatically when municipal supplies are available.
In areas where there are protracted water interruptions, IOPSA members are even becoming involved in bulk water deliveries to residences and businesses.
“Forecasts indicate that water demand will exceed supply by 10% by 2030, driven by an increase in demand from the municipal, industrial and agricultural sectors. Other drivers include low water tariffs, inefficient use, inadequate cost recovery, leakages and inappropriate infrastructure choices. It is, therefore, imperative that South Africans understand the importance of conserving our water resources. In this way, we can foster a culture of using water efficiently and paying for these services,” Mokawane concludes.
Find out more information: www.iopsa.org/water-solutions