Mthokozisi Ncube, Water Specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa shares his expert opinion on the City of Cape Town’s Day Zero predicament while also tabling resolutions to curb water wastage, not only for the city but South Africa at large.
In recent years most African countries have been stricken by the effects of climate change resulting in drought conditions. In South Africa, the City of Cape Town has been hard hit by this water famine, forcing the city to employ water usage restrictions in order to preserve the little that its dams still hold. In hindsight it is easy to be critical and suggest
improvements to the status quo. Could more have been done to avert the crisis? Definitely: there is always scope for improvement, especially with the benefit of 100%
vision. However, what must also be appreciated is the high level of technical competence with respect to water resource and water services planning and provision within the city.
Being one of the few cities in South Africa that manages its water supply from the catchment back to the catchment (with no water board), the city has always had a more holistic view of what it takes to ensure water security for its citizens – there are extensive plans and activities to that effect.
A case in point is that the municipalities within the Western Cape regional supply system went on voluntary water restrictions long before these were promulgated by national government. Unfortunately, a number of things do tend to get in the way, as politics did in this case, with adequate apportionment of blame to all levels of government.
Consumer behaviour has also, particularly in the earlier days, not been as positive as would have been expected. This water crisis has turned the spotlight on the country’s
high reliance on surface water resources as opposed to diversifying the water mix to include groundwater, treated effluent, desalination, etc. as part of sustainable conjunctive
use programmes. This raises the increasingly critical need to consider all available alternatives of water resources as mitigation against the variability of rainfall in space and
time. Over and above the use of alternative sources for bulk supply management, demand for potable water is expected to outstrip supply by 2030 in a number of areas, thereby
compounding the water crisis.
This is against high levels of non-revenue water, water use inefficiencies and governance
failures in several water institutions. Balancing the demand and supply equation will require significantly improved performance in the measurement and management of all components of non-revenue water and positive behavioural change in consumers to achieve improved water use efficiency.
What has escaped notice with the Cape Town scenario is that ‘Day Zero’ is unfortunately a sad reality for a vast majority of citizens even in years of adequate rains as they
are yet to be served with adequate and/or reliable water and sanitation services. It is unacceptable that water security is attained for a few at a high cost when segments
of the population remain unserved.
Concerted efforts must therefore be put towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals of achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water together with adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. This will inevitably require the leveraging of private and other non-government funding streams, which are eager to invest in the sector but require a number of certainties including the revamping of some water institutional models and processes that make private investment difficult at this stage.
Neglect of sanitation sub-sector
The sanitation sub-sector has received comparatively much less attention and budgets. Internationally, access levels to basic and safely managed sanitation are estimated at 68%
compared to 88% for access to basic and safely managed water service. In addition, an estimated 80% of the world’s wastewater flows return to the environment untreated.
Closer to home, over 50% of the wastewater treatment plants had a high or critical risk rating as of the last Green Drop Progress Report, issued in 2014. This leads to about
40% of the wastewater returning to the environment without being adequately treated. Other than the serious health risks and burden this poses, this is indicative of the
chronic failure to regard wastewater flows as a resource that can positively contribute towards water security.
Poor payment culture
The water sector is adversely affected by the poor payment culture, which is pervasive and ranges from institutional consumers, including municipalities owing water boards, government departments owing municipalities, to residential consumers owing municipalities. Together with water tariffs that are not cost-reflective and the chronic under-investment in maintenance of infrastructure, this creates a vicious cycle that ultimately threatens service delivery and the viability and sustainability of water services in general.
Consumer water management practices
The most important activity that consumers can do is to quantify their water consumption by, at the veryleast, reading the municipal meter on a regular basis.
Awareness of the amount of consumption at regular intervals would not only sensitise one to water usage patterns but would also enable one to recognise any abnormal consumption such as that from internal leaks.
Research has also shown that there is a prevalence of on-site leakage in excess of 60% of properties in some South African towns. This means that if more consumers took extra steps in observing and attending to all forms of leaks ranging from dripping taps to poor plumbing, such alarming rates will drop significantly. Simple exercises of shutting off all water fixtures and observing the movement of the water meter can clearly show the
presence of leakage.
The vast majority of such leaks require simple routine maintenance activities such as the
changing of toilet and tap seals. The lack of water efficiency labelling schemes on the continent, together with the use of outdated water fixtures also means that water use efficiency is very low. Consumers can take proactive steps of installing water efficient fittings such as aerators on taps and shower heads and the changing of high volume flush systems that consume in excess of 12 litres per flush in favour of dual flush systems, which consume 3–6 litres per flush.
While technology does enable the better management of water within consumers’ premises, the biggest impact is from positive behavioural change that embraces water
saving as a way of life. This includes the conscientious use of water and the safe recycling of water for purposes that can take water of a lesser quality. We are in a water
scarce country after all!