South Africa facing a water crisis — here’s why

South Africa’s water resources are at a critical point, and the country is facing a severe crisis unless there is immediate action.

The World Bank’s 2030 Water Resources Group warned that a gap between the demand and supply of water is developing in South Africa.

Based on rising population, economic growth projections, and current efficiency levels, demand for water in South Africa is expected to rise to 17.7 billion cubic meters in 2030.

Water supply is projected to amount to 15 billion cubic meters, representing a 17% gap between water supply and demand. It amounts to a 2.7 to 3.8 billion cubic meter deficit.

“This gap is critical, and if sustainable socio-economic growth is to be envisioned, such a gap has to be dealt with decisively over this period,” the World Bank said.

South Africa will have to resolve tough trade-offs between agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centres.

“These trade-offs can cause tension and conflict among water users. No actor alone can solve these challenges,” it said.

Old and poorly maintained infrastructure

It is, however, not only the gap between demand and supply which is of concern.

Municipal water infrastructure is deteriorating, and South Africa’s water resources polluted and wasted.

Most municipal wastewater systems are not functional, which results in raw sewage flowing into rivers.

The Mail & Guardian reported that South Africa’s municipal sewage system has collapsed, with only 60 of the 824 treatment plants producing clean water.

Poorly maintained water infrastructure is another problem, with burst pipes and water outages becoming a regular feature in many cities and towns.

The Helen Suzman Foundation said deteriorating infrastructure is a result of ageing and poor maintenance.

The government’s approach to water infrastructure maintenance is reactionary as opposed to preventive.

This strategy raises the costs of repair unnecessarily and reducing the functional life span of infrastructure.

Not enough dams

While deteriorating infrastructure, pollution, and failing municipalities are a concern, the shortage of enough water is the biggest challenge.

Most of South Africa’s economic hubs are in areas where water does not naturally flow in abundance.

Population growth and water scarcity, which is particularly strenuous during times of drought, places increased strain on water resources and water supply infrastructure.

The impact of droughts on water supply was seen in Cape Town when three consecutive years of dry winters forced the city into a water crisis.

Cape Town imposed severe water restrictions with real concerns that taps could run dry. Although it narrowly avoided this catastrophe, the crisis showed how vulnerable the city’s water supply is.

If South Africa wants to avoid regular water restrictions to manage a lack of supply – similar to Eskom’s load-shedding – it needs to invest in new dams.

South Africa has a rapidly growing population that requires more water. New dams are needed to ensure demand does not exceed supply.

The government has failed to construct enough dams since democracy to keep pace with the growing water demand.

  • Between 1961 and 1991, the government constructed 18 new dams that can store over 200 million cubic meters of water. These dams added over 18 billion cubic meters of water storage.
  • Between 1991 and 2021, the government constructed only two new dams that can store over 200 million cubic meters of water. These dams added only 600 million cubic meters of water storage.

Unless the government invests in new dams and improves South Africa’s water infrastructure, we may face water-shedding similar to load-shedding.

The image below shows the dams with a capacity of over 200 million cubic meters of water storage constructed in two 30-year periods – 1961 to 1991, and 1991 and 2021.

Dams in South Africa
Dams in South Africa

Now read: Real reason behind load-shedding in South Africa

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South Africa facing a water crisis — here’s why