Water Wars

Tunicia Phillips, Mpho Rapahata and Nhlanhla Sehume


Tunicia, Mpho and Nhlanhla want to implement an awareness campaign around innovative community and household water-saving methods, and to promote proactive water-conscious habits.

Fish carcasses lie scattered around the banks of the empty Vaal Dam

South Africa's dam levels are expected to have increased nationally by the end of November, 2016, bringing desperately needed relief to the country's disaster-riddled agricultural sector and thousands of households.

The increase in water levels has largely been owed to the decision to tap into the country’s reserves at the Sterkfontein Dam and heavy recent rains.

The Department of Water and Sanitation has however commended the reduction in water use by Gauteng's big metros on November, 18 following a near catapult of the province's water crisis into an even greater disaster. Gauteng's water supply, the Vaal Dam, had increased its volume for seven days in a row by then. The developments in the country's water crisis did not come without its fair share of struggles, and experts predict that it will take around three to four years before South Africa recovers from its worst drought since it began recording rainfall in 1904.

Between October and November 2016, residents in big metros and well-serviced areas experienced water shortages that left taps dry on some days. Water utilities have begun throttling water from reservoirs, decreasing pressure output to its customers. In Ekurhuleni, water has been completely cut off at night to save the limited supply of water in dozens of near dry reservoirs. Both water saving methods have posed great threats to fragile city infrastructures. Speaking under anonymity, an engineer in Tshwane said throttling was putting pressure valves under tremendous pressure, and shedding risked pipes bursts.

WATCH: State of South Africa’s second biggest Dam, the Vaal

Countrywide water shortages aren’t a problem unique to South Africa. In 2012, the U.S Office for the Director for National Intelligence released a report, Global Water Security, warning that overuse of water was a source of conflict and a threat to the country’s national security. According to the report, between now and 2040, “global demand for fresh water will increase, but the supply … will not keep pace with demand absent of more effective management of water resources”. Climate change, it says, will cause water shortages in many areas of the world.

The developing world, including parts of South Africa, with its rapidly expanding urban centres, will see the biggest increases in water demand and according to the Global Water Security report, a number of U.S states will “exert leverage over their neighbors to preserve their water interests … This leverage will be applied in international forums and also include pressuring investors, nongovernmental organizations, and donor countries to support or halt water infrastructure projects”.

By Tunicia Phillips

The true wrath of the country’s drought conditions is beginning to rear a larger part of its ugly head as water shortages continue to grip the well- serviced urban areas. A recent heat wave further added to the rapid evaporation of Sub Saharan Africa’s new gold. Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga and North West were hit the hardest and in Gauteng, the city of Ekhuruleni and the south of Johannesburg are seeing taps run dry. This as dam levels drop at an alarming rate, and recent data shows that urban residents are running taps with no restraint. The Water and Sanitation Department recently announced stricter water restrictions, citing gross water wastage in metros like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekhuruleni.

Johannesburg Water warned that water consumption is increasingly high, likely owing to an increase in demand amidst the heatwave across some provinces. High lying areas are expected to feel the biggest brunt as water pressure is necessary for water to reach those areas. The Grand Central Reservoir and several others are struggling to meet its demand and water tankers are scarce.

This graphic shows dam levels on October, 22 to 24.

Image courtesy of Rand Water

The Department of Water and Sanitation tapped into its reserves this week – opening the flow from the Sterkontein Dam to fill the Vaal Dam which is now at a critical 26.6% full. The decision is largely moved by a bid to keep the Vaal Dam at 25% as any further decline could spell out an even worse disaster.

“The Vaal Dam, one of the 14 dams within the Vaal River System supplies approximately 12 million people and industries, continues to dwindle week on week. It is currently sitting at 26.6%, which is its lowest level ever,” it said in a statement.

Rand Water has already begun supplying municipalities with 15% less water making reservoir levels inadequate in supplying demand. In Ekhuruleni, water rationing has now gripped the metro, with water shedding now plummeting the city into tighter restrictions. The Department has not ruled out the possibility of national water shedding if current water use trends persist around the country.

Speaking at a recent panel discussion on water conservation, the Department’s Trevor Balzer said a large amount of urban water use goes to non- consumptive use such as pools and gardening. Balzer told attendees that the water infrastructure will become very vulnerable to bursts if water shedding is implemented. He also warned that the lessened pressure would make it harder to reach high lying areas, a phenomenon residents in Johannesburg are beginning to feel. Speaking at the same dialogue at the Joburg stock Exchange in Sandton, manager for water and sanitation at GiBB engineering, Jacques Laubscher said water is not seen as a commodity and hence is not valued in society. “If we really want to have an impact, society has to change, society has to start respecting water, society has to think on a daily basis; if I open that tap and run it too long what will happen?”

Each household, he said, should have its own water conservation strategy.

In other news

While the Gauteng provincial government was holding urgent meetings with the Department of Water and Sanitation and municipalities, student protests have played out as leading news on every station and in every publication.

On October, 18 a group of people set a police vehicle alight in Braamfontein Johannesburg while police were dispersing protesing students in the city. Photo by Marvin Adams

Gauteng residents continue to wilfully run their sprinklers systems during the day, hose down their cars and driveways, and consume water without restraint, all the while indignant or supportive of the Fees Must Fall movement. Twitter shows that #SaveWater has been more dominant on social media, and that those tweeting are water are predominantly from government and civil society. Those tweeting about #FeesMustFall, on the other hand, are ordinary citizens. South Africa has no “official” hashtag for the drought and water scarcity, and most users use #SaveWater, a universal tag that is not specific to any one country.

The two graphics below show how, consistently, #SaveWater has been the more popular hashtag, with the City of Johannesburg and Joburg Water among the top contributors. However, as previously mentioned, this a universally-used hashtag.

The Water Department said that recent thunderstorms and heavy rains have made little difference for dam and river levels – as evaporation amidst high temperatures have hampered any chance of retaining the incoming water. The Sa Weather Service has projected heavier rainfall in January – that may assist in increasing the amount of water South Africa has for its citizens. According to a Mail and Guardian report, South Africa will need to import an estimated five million tonnes of maize between May this year and April 2017, which will weigh heavily on the trade deficit. Import estimates are based on the fact that farmers have planted 1.3 million hectares of maize this season, half of the usual 2.6 million hectares.

Water Wars! The idea seems so far- fetched, fantastical and somewhat melodramatic. It immediately evokes a detached perception of a world far, far away that exists only in our imaginations.

The drought in sub-Saharan Africa is far from far, far away and yet recent revelations by South Africa’s Water and Sanitations Minister Nomvula Mokhonyane, paints a picture of a country that is yet to realise and internalise the true extent of this country’s - and the continent’s - national disaster. Last week, after hosting an urgent meeting with all mayors in Gauteng, Mokhonyane told a small group of media that the province was using more water, rather than saving the 15% now required from municipalities in the province. Mokhonyane said that the country has reached a point of no return and further failure to save water will inevitably result in the collapse of the Vaal Water System, come January 2017. Interestingly, Gauteng, which depends on other provinces for water, has only managed to declare a 2% saving of water. Urban dwellers in the city are said to use 40% of their drinkable water on non-consumptive uses such as gardening, car washing and beautification. It is unfathomable how, despite dam levels reaching historic lows and very little rain expected, we continue to go about business as usual.

Mpho Rapahata
Tunicia Phillips
Nhlanhla Sehume

The KayaFM #CBStoryChallenge team is on a mission to jolt South Africans out of our apathy. Through innovative technologies and ideas, we plan to tell the water story in a way that will create measurable impact. This is by no means an easy task. We hope to spearhead water saving initiatives through a mobile phone application and to engage with the challenges that define our cultural disposition in urban areas, which have rendered our proactive abilities for this cause, paralysed. By sharing the brutal truths and, to a certain extent, the potential for inevitable war for water, we seek to, in a way, shock people into action while also rewarding citizens who are changing their behaviour and innovatively saving our most important natural resource.

Throughout this campaign, our coverage will explore the role of various sectors like mining in the management of water use; the private sector in innovating water saving technologies and the dire effect the current drought has had on food security and the agricultural sector. With the use of data analysis and infographics, the content will uncover the history and current trends of water supply and use within various regions. We look forward to rewarding innovative and dedicated ordinary people who have gone the extra mile to do their part for the preservation of Africa’s new gold.

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