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A crisis far bigger than Eskom

The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan is sombre reading.

Eskom’s debt mountain – R419 billion and growing – is a significant threat to the country’s fiscal strength. Some would argue that it is the single biggest factor influencing our sovereign credit rating.

Operationally, the unexpected wave of load shedding has been disruptive and will drag on economic growth. But load shedding is a controlled way of dealing with a national supply-side crisis.

The plan by the government to split Eskom into three will yield two good assets and one bad one. The transmission and distribution entities are still arguably world-class, especially the former. In Joburg, direct distribution to households and businesses by Eskom in greater Sandton and Soweto is significantly better than the job done by City Power. In fact, there are strong arguments for the distribution business of Eskom to take over this function nationally (a story for another day).

The reality is that the bad asset – generation – is plagued by reliability problems, decades of underinvestment, poor maintenance and artificially high input costs (among other things). Despite multiple power stations, the fact that we receive power from a national grid means generation is, practically speaking, a single point of failure.

There is a far bigger crisis looming. And because the supply side is completely distributed to regional, district and even municipal level, it isn’t as easily manageable as Eskom. And it’s going to take an almighty effort to solve over the medium term.


Day Zero in Cape Town captured the headlines last year because this affected a massive city – arguably the country’s second most important – and the seat of Parliament. As much as this ‘only’ affected 4.2 million residents, it became a national crisis. The local and provincial governments coordinated a response, business mounted an enormous effort to reduce consumption and augment supply, and residents reduced consumption on a scale never seen before globally. The taps kept running. Rainfall was decent and the crisis was averted.

There are far bigger crises playing out in smaller cities and districts across South Africa, but we simply don’t hear about them.

The reality

Vast stretches of the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape are still experiencing severe drought conditions. The taps are drying up.

Beaufort West, probably the most well-known of these due to its location on the N1 transport route, has been in crisis for months. This is not mismanagement; far lower-than-average rainfall means boreholes (a major source of the town’s water) are drying up.

A similar scenario is playing out in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), but this is a crisis caused by the almost completely dysfunctional Makana Local Municipality. A similar situation played out in 2013.

In Kimberley, the entire town’s water supply is shut off by the Sol Plaatje Municipality every evening from 6 pm and restored at 4 am the next morning. Reservoir levels are critically low and this ‘intervention’ is the only realistic way for the municipality to maintain supply (water is pumped to Kimberley from the Vaal River, about 30km away). The recent deterioration in raw water quality poses real risks to a host of towns and cities that rely on the Vaal River System, including Kimberley. This is an entire provincial capital, without water.

Along with this, dozens of smaller towns including Philipstown, Petrusville, Harrismith, Bethal, Welkom, Ladysmith and Laingsburg are in crisis. Many more communities in towns and districts (especially in Limpopo and North West Province) are experiencing chronic water quality issues.

The Department of Water and Sanitation maintains that it is not the department’s responsibility to deliver emergency water supplies to towns in crisis. Beaufort West and Makhanda are relying on Gift of the Givers to truck in bottled water. No one in government can, or will, help. 

The future

The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan published last October is sombre reading.

There are problems everywhere you look: on the supply, demand and environmental sides.

Easily the most alarming is the fact that each person in South Africa, on average, uses 237 litres per day. That is “64 litres per person per day more than the world average of 173 litres per person per day”. The report says “the high water use is partly due to ‘municipal non-revenue water’ which is currently at an unacceptably high 41%”.

It adds that “35% is lost through leakage” (a number helped by relatively good performance in the Western Cape and Gauteng). “Municipalities losing about 1 660 million m3 per year through non-revenue water. At a unit cost of R6/m3, this amounts to R9.9 billion each year.” This equates to nearly 2 000 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day in lost drinking/potable water.

This is water that is literally running away.

In Limpopo and the North West, more than half of all water supplied is lost.

Operationally, local government infrastructure is a mess and this almost always manifests itself in water supply issues. The plan says about 44% of the 962 water treatment works, and 56% of the 1 150 municipal wastewater treatment works are in a poor or critical condition. They are described by the report as “in need of urgent rehabilitation and skilled operators”.

“Some 11% of this infrastructure is completely dysfunctional”.

Take a drive through small and medium towns in South Africa. You will be horrified.

The surface water we do have is being mismanaged on a colossal scale: “Between 1999 and 2011 the extent of main rivers in South Africa classified as having a poor ecological condition increased by 500%, with some rivers pushed beyond the point of recovery. South Africa has lost over 50% of its wetlands and of the remaining 3.2 million hectares, one third [is] already in a poor condition”.

The plan says “water is severely underpriced” and “cost recovery is not being achieved”.

“To achieve water security, an estimated capital funding gap of around R33 billion per annum for the next 10 years must be closed, through a combination of improved revenue generation and a significant reduction of costs.”

The projected water deficit in 2030 is 17%. Think about this for a second: the 2010 Fifa World Cup was nine years ago. In that same amount of time, we will have run out of water, unless radical changes are made.

Government’s only plan, really, is to force down domestic (residential) consumption.

Source: National Water and Sanitation Master Plan

Is it at all realistic to expect this course of events to unfold without water supply descending into the load shedding chaos we’re seeing in the provision of electricity?

‘Water demand management’ equals water cuts on a metro/city/district level because it is virtually impossible to manage demand effectively across tens or hundreds of thousands of households – ask Cape Town or eThekwini. In severe drought, this is what these metros resorted to.

‘Water shedding’ has entered the lexicon and regular cuts are surely going to be a way of life sooner than many think. In Gauteng, delays in commencing Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project will hit hard.

This is already a disaster. No one – apart from the millions of South Africans who live in these cities, towns and districts – realises it yet. No task team will be able to fix this.

Hilton Tarrant works at YFM. He can still be contacted at

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A timely article. Without watet nothing else matters. And our future crisis is coming.
The time to plan and build desalination plants and additional inland reservoirs is now.
Mevermind stopping E.coli from continuing to contaminate our water supply.
This will be the real SA crisis

What in post ’94 SA is not a disaster?

I challenge anyone here to answer.

ADVICE – pack your bags and run!

Heed your own advice Duane. SA doesn’t need people like you.

Good advice Duane. It has come to that.

On the contrary, Chop Your Dollar, any person in the position of being able to emigrate is needed by SA. Sour grapes on your part.

Take your own advice please.

What post-94 is not a disaster you ask?

Well…uhm….TRANSFORMATION was extremely successful *lol*

There was a study done last year (by Dept of Water & Sanitation) with a report stating that SA will run out of water by 2035. (…when water demand predicted to exceed supply, so water-rotation would be necessary)

When SA loses water, many people will die. Not caused by thirst, but caused by Transformation…..

It will be the Life Isidimeni case upscaled by a million times.

Time will come when we have to sell “water for profit”. As African-time passes, water as a basic human right would be “transformed” to something non-existent.

Despite all the negative stories that we read about daily which shows the deterioration of the countries’ assets due to the incompetence and light fingeredness of the ruling ANC party, there are many in the country, particularly those with limited education or those from the era of the 30% pass mark who simply do not comprehend the critical place this government and their BFF, the Guptas and other state capturers have placed this entire country in. Voting this regime out or reducing their majority to a minimal may, and I use that word lightly, may just bring about some kind of hope. Squirrel Ramaphosa has to date not met any of his promises to reduce the countries burdens and also the size of the state basket of leeches. If he does not do so very soon, this country is in danger of erupting into civil war at a level not seen yet. The ANC have the power to take back what was pilfered and captured, but I do not think they have the will to do so.

There are also some educated social justice types that do not help things. Just read an article by Mark Heywood on the Daily Maverick site where he rants about government “austerity” and calls for more government spending and less concern with ratings agencies.

Another ANC disaster. In the past 25 years have they built a single new dam. Dep of Water Affairs has a R2 billion hole thanks to Nokkers.

But surely the change of Grahamstown’s name should have solved it’s water “challenges”?

…..sadly no


Had Grahamstown been properly named “Wakanda”

Problem solved…

Name change soon to be followed by these headlines:

ANC condemns climate change.

ANC president “shocked” that there is not a drop of water left in the country.

Followed shortly by a claim that Apartheid was to blame for climate change because only whites were allowed to benefit from the climate and now the climate has to be shared by everyone in the country.

Just another area where we don’t need engineers or honest competent managers.

This is what happens when you hand over responsibility to a lithic age peoples with no concept of ‘tomorrow’.

The state of the infrastructure is a direct consequence of employment policy at government institutions. In all civilized nations, only the best-qualified individuals are considered for crucial positions. The qualification standards for employees at utilities determine the standard of service delivery by that utility. There is no alternative to this reality.

The qualification standards for a South African government- or municipal employee, ward-counselor or worker at a SOE is the ability to draw a cross on a piece of paper. The social group who draws the most crosses is handed the power to appoint themselves in critical positions. The ability to make a cross on paper is regarded as the highest qualification standard in South Africa.

Voting for the ANC automatically qualifies individuals for critical posts at crucial institutions. The lack of water and electricity, the implosion of medical services and the sewage running down the streets are the physical manifestations of the human capital involved.

So, the problem is much worse than described in this article. The real underlying problem is not the implosion of service delivery. The real problem is the loss of human capital. The right to vote is the conduit that equalizes, and brings equilibrium between the level of sophistication of infrastructure and service delivery on one hand, and the level of sophistication of the voting majority on the other hand. This equilibrium has not been found yet, the process is ongoing…….

The ‘crisis that is far bigger than Eskom’ is having a party that is corrupt and belligerent to the core (the ANC) and stuck in ignorant liberation mode as the governing party in a democratic system where people vote for the party and not a person.

The un-holy list system keeps the kleptocracy in power.

Great article Hilton. One doesn’t realise how serious this problem is.
Combine changing weather patterns and a dysfunctional government, and we have a huge problem.
(let’s not call it the perfect storm)
Not only are our fearless leaders unperturbed by this dilemma, they have been incapable of initiating repairs and maintenance to the system for the last 22 years.
What would Stalin have done?

Thanks Hilton. Eskom is the lion on the wildebeest´s back, forcing it to the ground. ´Water´ is the one going for the jugular. Game over. This wildebeest is not getting up again. It is easy being a pessimist but how does one deny the utter calamity that has befallen South Africa?

Indeed. I quite often get upset at comments on MW site that have this weird schadenfreude quality to it, but one cannot argue that South Africa is in dire straits.

We live in Sandton and the water gets cut off on a regular basis. Let’s face it, this country is going to the dogs faster than we can even imagine. Mismanagement, lack of maintenance, rampant corruption… sooner or later, you reap what you sow. Until people vote the ANC out, this picture will not change.

Funny you add in Sandton like it should be the last place to have the water cut. Turn your huge flipping lights off first please..

Given what we pay in rates it should be the last place!

If you can, pack your bags. There is no hope for this nation. Take your family and run.

Off you go then…

….”We live in Sandton and the water gets cut off on a regular basis.”…

Saves you the bother of semigrating to over-rated Cape Town and living out of a bucket with 24/7 traffic jams after taking a 30% pay-cut and paying a fortune for a matchbox-sized townhouse (now selling for a bargain)…

Don’t expect any action from Government until we are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. Until then the maintenance budget will be split amongst friends and cadres in the usual proportions.

I like this…big time. Let the raw sewerage rather flow down Mandela Drive compared to Paul Krugerlaan. What a disgrace, and the anc and its hanger-ons don’t even know that they don’t know. Shame, foeitog, welcome to êfrika.

Excellent article and reporting, Hilton.

Now we just need another fake news article from one of those “expert” Economists telling us that “population growth” has got absolutely NOTHING to do with this!

Sigh … the Perfect Storm …

Fools in government slyly organising to live a life of corrupted privilege that is DELIBERATELY immunised from their policy decisions, and an ENTIRE phalanx of supportive Economists whose SILENCE on the root causes of the TSUNAMI building up against this nation provides cover for the politicians to do nothing, except persuade the electorate to believe them that the cause of SA’s lie elsewhere!

What can go wrong?

OK. Let’s not panic people. All problems will soon be solved and there will be no reason to worry about anything. Courtesy of EWC (legalised theft), everyone will own a piece of land and will be equally poor and destitute – except for our wonderfully valiant leaders and their sycophants. Everyone will live most happily ever after.

As a Makhanda (Grahamstown)resident, the current drought has really only added to the water problems that have plagued the town for a number of years. Many people have had patchy water service for years, now, and the water quality tests positive for ecoli every so often.

Still, the drought has made the situation acute; But I now realise it is possible to use water sparingly: 20L camping showers with tank water, complex grey water systems (buckets), a winter Boksburg lawn, and extra tanks has brought our household (four and half) daily consumption to under 220 L a day. I reccon we can save at least another 15-20% of that, by pumping tank water into the washing machine.

It is possible. Is it necessary though? For a place like Makhanda – which were the Local Municipality competent – no! Since with a little forward planning, we could be pumping water from the Orange – Fish IBT, to meet the town demand. The larger institutions have boreholes and are drilling more. The town does not – well that not I am aware of at least. To be honest, it doesn’t help when you see people filling their tanks and pools (to augment their own water security) and private bowsers filling up at fire hydrants here!

The political / administrative cause for our water crisis at a Local Municipal level is a lengthy debate. Personally, I don’t agree with cadre deployment to bolster local political support (for any party – but it happens). Local Municipalities, need competent management teams that are not politically affiliated (maybe wishful thinking) – simple as that. Sadly these appear to be lacking in many Local Municipalities – similar to Doctors, maybe Engineers and Accountants should be made to do a compulsory two year community stint (ducks and runs….lol).

But the blame game doesn’t matter a milliliter, when the taps run dry. We can rant politics and wave our pitchforks outside the town hall, but my tap wont flow today or tomorrow.

Simply, here in Makhanda (unless we have a deluge to fill the dams that supply the western side of town), we need to realise that until the local treatment works for Fish River IBT water is upgraded and the pumps in place to pump additional Fish Water, water supply will be tight.

I look at water differently now; taken me a year to do this, but I certainly see it as a resource, and I’ll try to save as much as I can – most likely long after the drought has ended.

And this is why moving away from fossil fuels is so critical! Drought is devastating and climate change is real. We cannot ignore the bigger picture. South Africa is already a water poor country and its imperative that we start cutting back on our carbon emissions. We will NOT survive a sustained drought.

but it makes so much money

We’ve been private-sector provisioning most things in SA already, security, education, health. Why not power and water too.

Could there be some coincidence in the fact that the ANC took over control of water distribution and maintenance at the same time that infrastructure in South Africa began to collapse?

And that it will continue until they are removed from power? And if they are not we will become another Zimbabwe?

I think we should be told …

The take home message is: “make sure you can look after yourself”. Do not rely on the govt to supply fresh water (or other essential services), no-one is coming to rescue you – make a plan now.

Certainly, one will need to “look after oneself”. But it is EXPECTED from citizens to continue to PAY for services Govt is supposed to provide.

That’s easier said than done… what if you can’t afford to spring for a freestanding property? Personally I won’t settle for anything less but a lot of people don’t have that luxury.

This is another field of service where the ruling party ANC expelled all technically competent staff of engineers, technologists, technicians, artisans.
Because these types have the know-how to blow the whistle on corrupt practices such as sabotaging own water and sewerage pumps so as to award themselves contracts to truck the stuff in and out.

Excellent article Hilton

To add to the list of coming crises. National Health Insurance, Basic Education Amendments Bill, Hate Speech Bill , and off course the EWC. In short the ANC aims to destroy education, health, freedom of speech/religion and take away property rights.

Africans have poisonous hands , whatever they touch dies.

There is a relationship between IQ and the wealth of a nation.

No nation on Earth has suffered a greater brain drain than South Africa.

The Future of South Africa hinges on these 8 questions viz;
1. Is the violent crime rate falling?
2. Is there evidence of a religious revival?
3. Are expatriates coming back?
4. Is the workforce getting more disciplined?
5. Are High schools exams scores rising?
6. Are high-bracket income taxes falling?
7. Is the size of bureaucracy shrinking?
8. Is the rhetoric of race subsidizing?

If you answer “no” to more than half these questions, it’s time to consider selling

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