South African taps dry up after power cuts

Protester holding a sign saying

Protester holding a sign saying ‘give us our water’

The peace of a normally quiet suburban road near South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, is shattered by the sound of drilling.

These are not prospectors in search of a new source of the country’s mineral wealth, but workers digging for an arguably more precious resource: water.

Private boreholes – like this one being excavated at Garsfontein – are popping up in the wealthier neighborhoods of the country’s economic heartland, where taps are drying up.

“I’m tired of not knowing when we’ll have water and when we won’t,” says the frustrated owner.

“Having a borehole means we won’t have to depend so much on the government, it’s best for my family.”

Much of the domestic water supply here depends on electricity to pump it from the source to the vast high plain on which the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria sit.

The recent electricity problems in South Africa – with prolonged and regular power outages – have had a knock-on effect on the water supply.

“All our stations, they need electricity, they need electricity. We have to pump water wherever we need it,” said Sipho Mosai, head of state-owned Rand Water, the one of the country’s main water suppliers.

“Electricity is really at the heart of what we do and if we don’t have it externally, at least for now, it becomes a problem.”

“Some days I have no water or electricity, and it can last for several days. This makes everyday life unbearable,” says Zizi Dlanga, a 35-year-old private wealth manager.

She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in an affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg with her sister who is a trainee doctor. She now gets water when available and goes to a gym to shower.

“My water bill remains the same despite all the cuts. I feel frustrated, I have no access to alternatives to water [like a borehole] that would make it bearable for me,” she adds.

Water bottles in a tent

Bottled water is stored in Hammanskraal after an outbreak of cholera in the water supply

There are, of course, millions of South Africans who have lived without running water in their homes for years. But intermittent domestic supply is only one aspect of a multi-pronged problem facing the water industry.

“We are in a state of systemic failure, the water sector is collapsing,” Professor Anthony Turton told the BBC.

The lack of electricity has exacerbated the problems created by poorly maintained infrastructure, which has led to extensive leaks as well as sewer problems and a water supply that cannot meet demand.

Seventy million liters of treated, clean and potable water are lost every day due to rampant leaks in the crumbling water system.

Most of the water wastage identified is linked to poorly managed municipalities that do not invest in maintenance, partly due to corruption and theft.

It also means that treatment plants do not clean the water as they should.

And that had consequences for public health.

man selling water

Lawrence Malope sold bottled water in Hammanskraal after people got nervous about running water

Within weeks in Hammanskraal, a township outside Pretoria, 29 people were killed by cholera which had been found in the water supply there. The outbreak has been linked to substandard water purification practices.

Lawrence Malope sells bottled water by the side of the road in the township. It’s a new company born out of desperate times.

“Most people buy from me because they want clean water, because the water that comes out of the taps is dirty,” he says.

At home, he collects rainwater then boils it before using it.

“A lot of people are getting sick here from the water coming out of our taps and some just don’t know how to clean it. We have young children in this community, I’m really worried about our safety,” he says. .

But not having clean drinking water is not unique to Hammanskraal – a recent report by the Department of Water and Sanitation Affairs found that of the 155 treatment systems sampled, 41% came back showing a poor microbial compliance with water quality.

The problem is found across the country. In the picturesque artsy town of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, formerly known as Grahamstown, residents have for years been forced to contend with unsafe water, with recurring bouts of E. coli contamination.

In the Free State province, government surveys have revealed that the majority of sewage treatment plants are deemed “in critical condition”, putting residents at risk of contaminated water.

For Professor Turton, the combination of water and electricity supply problems creates a perfect storm.

“People living across the country are growing increasingly worried and increasingly angry. That’s partly because people are sometimes sitting in the dark.

“With the water supply cut off…we now have a situation where people are literally dying of disease.”

On the water supplier side, Mr. Mosai of Rand Water agrees that more needs to be done. He says his company is investing in solar power rather than relying on the national grid.

Well drilling

There has been a drilling boom in some wealthy suburbs in South Africa

As for solutions, drilling private boreholes is only an option for the very wealthy, as they cost $7,000 (£5,000).

It also serves to highlight the huge inequalities in South Africa.

“What it does is widen the gap between those who have and those who have not. It creates social injustice,” says Dr Ferrial Adam of advocacy group WaterCAN.

There are also questions about the environmental impact of drilling and whether the groundwater is drinkable. In some parts of the country, harmful metals and dangerous bacteria can be found in the water.

But experts say certain things can be done to benefit everyone and help stop the deterioration of the water supply.

“There are very quick fixes,” says Dr. Adam.

“One is fixing leaks, spending real money on infrastructure and maintenance, and testing the water regularly, to monitor what people are drinking.”

She adds that the national government needs to be more efficient in keeping municipalities online.

The government acknowledges the problem and says it has taken some municipalities to court over allegations of negligence.

But Dr. Adam believes that is not enough.

“Many of them fail. This failure puts lives at risk.”

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