South Africa’s state-run power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., which provides 95 per cent of the country’s electricity, is battling a 225 billion rand ($20 billion) funding gap and stages regular managed blackouts to prevent a shutdown of the national grid. However, challenges in the energy sector are now starting to spill over into water system.

Water and wastewater treatment plants are one of the largest consumers of energy in municipalities, often accounting for up to 30 per cent of total energy consumed. Pursuing energy efficiency within the water sector systems can significantly reduce operating costs, while mitigating the effects of climate change.

“In South Africa a water plan that combats ailing infrastructure and protects it from vandalism following almost two weeks of shortages in and around Johannesburg,” said Mlungisi Johnson, chairperson of the portfolio committee on water and sanitation in the National Assembly Committees. “The plan must combat aging electric and water equipment and copper theft.”

Electrical outage and cable theft causes havoc

Thousands of residents in South Africa’s biggest city and surrounding areas in the Gauteng province went without water for almost two weeks earlier this month after warm weather increased demand and an electrical outage and cable theft prevented pumps from filling the reservoirs.

Last week, Rand Water Services (Pty) Ltd.’s Palmiet pumping facility lost power after a cable was stolen from a nearby Eskom sub-station, hindering water supply to parts of Johannesburg, neighbouring Ekurhuleni municipality and Pretoria. Cable theft is an ongoing challenge that the energy sector has been battling for years. Between 2006/7 to December 2011 Eskom alone lost R350.2 million as a result of copper theft on the continent.

“We’re in this crisis now where energy and water intertwine,” said Matsobane Masebe, plant manager at the Palmiet station south of Johannesburg. “Power is the key reason why we’re sitting in this situation.”

Leon Basson, a member of the portfolio committee on water and sanitation in the National Assembly Committees, said pumping stations such as Palmiet need to have a parallel power system that can be used in the event of an outage. “We should get backup electricity,” he said. “If the one transformer goes out, they should be able to tap from another.”