Both the failing water infrastructure and the ever-increasing population have exacerbated the water crisis in South Africa, forcing its residents to adopt strict habits. Official mandates regarding significant reductions in water usage have led to overcrowded communal water taps, dangerous bore-holing, and the desperate acceptance of contaminated groundwater sources, all to combat a drought that has plagued the South African locale for over seven years. While local crisis response groups are available to support residents, there is only so much that can be done to solve the water crisis in South Africa when there are simply no sources of clean, freshwater available. 

South Africa is a country known for many things: its resilient beauty, its diverse cultures, and more recently, its social and economic growth. According to the World Bank, the Republic of South Africa (RSA), a newly industrialised nation, boasts the 33rd largest economy, and the 23rd largest population on the planet.

The RSA is also the most populated nation south of the equator, home to over 59 million people. This number is only expected to increase as citizens from poorer countries in the vicinity migrate to look for new homes, work and other opportunities.  

Unfortunately, South Africa’s consistent population increases are spelling trouble for a vastly underprepared water infrastructure. This, combined with low rainfall in recent years, has caused a severe and trying water crisis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Cape Town water shortage that affected the life of residents in 2018. 

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What Led to A Water Crisis in South Africa?

As experts in the field have agreed, the water crisis in South Africa can likely be attributed to economic (a lack of investment), as well as physical (a lack of rain) water scarcity. 

In an article, spokesman for the government committee appointed to respond to the water crisis in South Africa Luvuyo Bangazi described how dire the situation in South Africa has become.

 “We haven’t had good rains for more than seven years and we’ve had a sharp increase in water consumption from across sectors, be it residential, business, or other. So, compounding that with obviously ailing infrastructure that leads to severe water leaks … almost 25-30% of our water [is] being lost due to water leaks caused by failing infrastructure.”

It is estimated that 70 million litres of treated, clean, drinkable water is lost daily as a result of the thousands upon thousands of leaks that characterise South Africa’s water piping system. Thankfully, a recently formed local group known as the Water Crisis Committee has pushed the RSA administration to respond to the damage; since June 2022, an emergency response team has managed to fix over 9,700 leaks.  

The water leaks are of course serious, but the consistent lack of rain, year after year, has officials far more concerned. South Africa is already a normally arid locale, with an average yearly rainfall almost half the global average and ranked 29th driest out of 193 nations. 

Since 2015, South Africa has experienced record-low levels of precipitation, likely the result of anthropogenic climate change. A study completed by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, International Food Policy Research Institute, and CGIAR found that there was a chance greater than 50% that South Africa’s mid-century temperatures would experience a threefold increase over the current climate’s variability range, meaning whatever temperature changes South Africa experiences will likely be three times higher than normal. What’s more, the risk of decreased precipitation in the country is three to four times higher than the risk of increased precipitation. 

The Sacrifice of Local Residents

The Cape Town water crisis that occurred four years ago nearly left the South African economic hub completely without water. To quell water usage, car washes, swimming pools, and fountains were all banned, residents were told to consume no more than 50 litres per household, and new strict agricultural water quota limits were put in place. The city had become so hopelessly desperate that officials were encouraging residents to shower for no more than two minutes, to recycle and reuse greywater, and to flush their toilets only when absolutely necessary.  

Today, the residents of the Nelson Mandela Bay, otherwise known as Port Elizabeth, are suffering the greatest shortages. The Kouga, Churchill, Impofu, Loerie, and Groendal Dams–-the dams that supply the Nelson Mandela Bay locale–are a mere 16% full on average. This has left their sizeable population of 1.28 million people worried for the future, forced to take precautions and watch their water usage very carefully. 

“There needs to be a very conscious reduction in water demand,” said Sputnik Ratau, media liaison for the South African Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs. “We should be able to get through this period”.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, the average human, at minimum, requires 235 litres of sanitary water every day. The residents of Nelson Mandela Bay, much like those of Cape Town four years prior, are currently being asked to consume a maximum of 50 litres of water per day.  

 “Nelson Mandela Bay currently faces an unprecedented crisis in the delivery of basic water supply,” said members of a local community-based committee in a statement.

Overcoming the Water Crisis in South Africa: The Problem with the “Solution”

To prepare for a possible “day zero” (the day municipal taps are shut off), Gift of the Givers, a non-governmental South African disaster relief organisation, has been drilling boreholes near public locations like hospitals and schools to access water deposits deep beneath the South African landscape. The boreholes have been a true lifesaver for the locals who use them. However, some experts worry that they may cause more trouble than it’s worth.

“What is not being revealed [to citizens] is that because of the geological nature of the coastal zone, [fresh]water being extracted may be replaced by saline water intrusion coming from the sea via certain fissures in the rocks.” said Phumelele Gama, head of the botany department at Nelson Mandela University in an interview with Mongabay. According to Gama, the saline water intrusions would eventually render the borehole water deposits completely undrinkable in as little as six months after “day zero”.  

Furthermore, the water deposits being accessed by these boreholes often contain an unhealthy and possibly deadly amount of bacteria. A 2020 study out of South Africa’s University of Venda and the Tshwane University of Technology, for example, found that 33% of the water found in borehole deposits near Vhembe rural areas in South Africa’s Limpopo province was contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Another study completed in South Africa came to similar conclusions, discovering that the boreholes near 10 public schools in the Giyani region of Limpopo contained multiple bacterial strains, including Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacteria and E. coli. 

Building a Better Tomorrow 

Though the climate forecast of Nelson Mandela Bay, as well as all of South Africa as a whole, continues to look grim, there are many who relentlessly strive for a better tomorrow.  A multidisciplinary academic team from universities in the Western Cape province came together after the Cape Town water crisis to better understand water scarcity, and how best to respond to it in the future. The collaboration, known as “Cities facing escalating water shortages,” workshopped with 50 stakeholders, assessing political, economic, technical science, natural science, social science, and civil society facets. As described in an article published in Brookings, the team formulated five key lessons: 

  1. Build water-sensitive and resilient cities 
  2. Practice integrated water planning and management that ensure sustainable and equitable water access.
  3. Build water-smart cities that are connected with real-time relevant data and information that is shared widely.
  4. Ensure a collaborative and supportive governance environment to unlock synergies.
  5. Cultivate informed and engaged water citizens, and empower residents, government, businesses, NGOs, and the agricultural sector to make a difference.

If you are looking to help with the water crisis in South Africa yourself, The Water Project, a top-rated non-profit organisation, provides an easy-to-use platform for sending donations on their website, as does Greenpeace, and World Vision. The Water Institute of South Africa is also asking for support, internationally and within. Local citizens are encouraged to donate empty water bottles, to provide their time at water points, or to act as deliverers.  

Featured Image by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash

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