Home » Opinion » “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” WH Auden

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” WH Auden

When is a crisis not a crisis? When you live in South Africa, or that’s the way it seems when scientists, engineers and the media warn of impending catastrophes and nothing is done about it.

This is where politics and nature collide so let’s look at the current water crisis gripping the country. South Africa has always experienced droughts, the two of the biggest which occurred in the Vaal River system in the 1930s and 1980s lasted eight and a half years. Climate change could exacerbate this: in the southern Cape and central Karoo a recent serious drought occurred between 2008 and 2011.

So drought is nothing new in our history but why is it so bad this time around? Dr Chris Herold, Principal Consultant, Umfula Wempilo Consulting and President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering(SAICE) explains a sick comedy of errors and gross mismanagement that affects the 14 million or so consumers that rely on the Vaal River System for their very existence.

“While the public has been slow to apply water restrictions they are not to blame for us having water restrictions this year. The system is designed to carry us through a much longer drought. So what are the real reasons why we now have water restrictions and why everyone is (rightly) panicking?

The Thukela-Vaal water transfer via the Drakensburg scheme is not working. This is because Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) pumps at the foot of the Drakensberg are not delivering as planned. These have been broken for more than a year.

During the last rainy season water was released from Sterkfontein Dam to Vaal Dam to make room to transfer water from the Thukela – the Sterkfontein Dam was full and bleeding down to the Vaal Dam and the transfer rate would have incurred unnecessarily high river losses. As a result, from October 2015, a year’s worth of pumping was released during the rainy season timed to coincide with natural floods. This also reduced the fish kills that could have resulted from releases during dry winter months. However, by 31 October the storage in Sterkfontein Dam was at 91.5% (i.e. 8.5% of the previously stored water was still missing). It should have been full by then, over a year since the releases commenced.

Since October we should have been transferring water into Sterkfontein Dam at the planned rate of 20m3/s. But it was found that the DWS pumps could deliver only a fraction of that (expected 8m3/s rising linearly through the year to 12m3/s), so less water was released during the 2015/16 rainy season. But even that drastically reduced target could not be met! By the end of September this year only two-thirds of the expected already compromised water transfer had taken place!

On top of that for part of the last year only one of the four pumps (three duty pumps and one standby) delivering water from Heyshope Dam in the Usutu catchment to the Vaal upstream of Grootdraai Dam was working, due to bad maintenance and abysmal procurement policies. Grootdraai Dam supplies critically important power stations and the Sasol-Secunda complex.

Failure to curtail municipal water leakage

A couple of decades ago the metros and municipalities were targeted to reduce their water demand by 15% by 2010 through leakage control. Nothing like this was achieved. The planned commissioning date for Polihale Dam in Lesotho was set for 2020 on this basis. However, water leakage has climbed rather than declined. As a result the system yield has been pushed deeper and deeper into deficit as water demands have grown.

These two massive failures have pushed us into premature water restrictions, which were triggered at the end of May 2016 when the Vaal River System storage was about to drop below 60%. Without the above two gross failures we would have about 14% more water in storage. So the primary causes of the current water restrictions are preventable well known man-made failures: in particular by the first (DWS) and third (municipal) tiers of government.

Politics delays water restrictions

To add insult to injury, the imposition of water restrictions – 15% on urban demand and 20% restrictions on irrigation demand – was delayed by nearly two-and-a-half months for political reasons. Although the need was agreed to at the end of May last year, the announcement was delayed until 12 August because of the upcoming municipal elections.

Given that little was achieved until the end of October, we have effectively lost five months. This means that to achieve a 15% restriction in water demand would require more than 25% restrictions! In practice this will not happen. System dam storage will simply decline more rapidly, thereby bringing forward the unwelcome date when the next storage decision will be breached heralding more severe restrictions, and the next one and so on…

Lesotho Highlands Water Project-2 5 years late

To add to our woes, Polihale Dam construction is now five years late and can now only be expected to be commissioned by 2025 – so no help as far as the current drought is concerned.

A critical drought sequence in the Vaal River System is roughly eight and a half years long (based on the 1930s and 1980s droughts). The current drought started about 31 months ago. Hence, we could be facing another six years or so before such a drought is broken. We could have had Polihale Dam delivering water for the last two years of a design drought from 2020. That is no longer possible because of the five year delay in the commissioning date.

Cumulative impact

First off we need to realise that a critical drought sequence starts the last time when the system dams are full and ends when next they refill. The only water that comes into the system during that period is pumped via inter-basin transfer and whatever water comes our way via catchment runoff.

Since the pumping is limited by the pump capacity, we cannot recover any of the water that we have lost since the drought started until it ends. Moreover, for the remainder of the drought the difference between the design pumping rate of 20m3/s and what the defective Thukela-Vaal pumps are actually delivering will continue to deprive us of planned water importation until the pumps are restored to proper working order. This is cumulative loss.

Similarly, for as long as our water resource is uselessly wasted to feed water leakage, we will continue to lose more water than has been planned for from now and for the remaining years of the drought, which might be another six years. If the planned and well-motivated curtailment in water leakage and/or Water Demand Management initiatives do not occur, then six years of totally useless leakage loss of 15% of Rand Water’s (RW) gross water demand would add up to another 90% of their annual water demand.

Add to that the water losses during the last two and a half years (water leakage and defective pumps) and the expected Tugela-Vaal pumping under supply for another year, and we end up with a water loss due to avoidable DWS and municipal management failure of two times RW’s annual water demand (30% of the gross storage of the entire Vaal River system). We would have to make good this loss during the remaining six years of the drought sequence. That would amount to an average of 33.3% restrictions on urban water use for the entire period!

We won’t see such draconian restrictions yet as the dams might fill substantially during the current rainy season. Similarly the probability of the system refilling during subsequent rainy seasons also has to be taken into account. But if we are facing a design drought, those decision levels will all be brought forward until in the end the restrictions will be much worse than 33.3%. The level of urban water restrictions will be mitigated somewhat by imposing bigger restrictions on irrigation use. But that might affect food security.

Emergency Engineering Interventions

Irrespective of the causes, we are in a situation that is not of our choosing. To mitigate the damage, the following actions have been set out in order of priority, based on how quickly they can be implemented and start showing results.

Repair defective pumps: The state of the vital pumps serving the most strategic water transfer schemes in South Africa is a matter of grave concern. It is absolutely essential to bring them back into working order with the utmost urgency. Ineffective over-centralised procurement systems that are a severe hindrance need to be immediately rectified and the necessary resources and zeal applied to restore the situation. This includes effective maintenance programmes and allocation of the necessary financial and human resources.

Reduce water wastage: Municipalities can also play an important role in reducing water wastage in indigent homes where residents cannot (or will not) pay for their potable water by deploying teams of ‘barefoot plumbers’ to provide a free service to fix leaking taps and toilet cisterns. This will not only save municipalities a lot of money on water purchases from RW, it will also reduce overloading of sewage systems with concomitant economic savings.

Failure to achieve the required 15% reduction in water demand through curtailment of water losses is the main reasons why we are in the current stressed situation. We cannot tolerate another six years of this. Municipalities must commit the financial and human resources to locate and curtail excessive water leakage.

This should take the form of both pipe refurbishment and pressure reduction. The economic payback period of such actions is very short (about three years) so it should be highly profitable for municipalities anyway. This also answers the fallacy of where the money will come from – it will effectively pay for itself!

Revitalise technical capacity and moribund structures: All of these actions depend on effective technical management both within the DWS and the municipalities, which means that experienced professional engineers have to be placed in top executive technical structures to ensure that technically sound decisions are made.

For the DWS that means building technical capacity at every level through proper mentoring and training of young candidates and clearing attractive career paths to encourage them to stay. This includes empowering every technical management level with the authority to carry out their duties for which they are accountable without hindrance from other parts of the organization. This includes appropriate budget and procurement control. (The current procurement system is hopelessly centralised and ineffective.)

Only by unblocking the structure will it be possible to create an engineer-friendly environment that will encourage the brightest and best to make their careers in the DWS. Temporarily filling top and middle management positions with experienced retired engineers along with secondees from the private sector will ensure that core functions are carried out. But this will be a complete waste of time if the right working environment is not created.

Municipalities have similar needs to stock senior positions with competent engineers, technologists, technicians and scientists. In particular the position and authority of the municipal manager needs to be restored and filled with highly-experienced technically-competent persons.

Expedite implementation of water restrictions: The history to date is not encouraging. It is essential that the current level of water restrictions (and future ones) is strictly and rapidly applied. This requires:

  • Advance warning of anticipated restrictions;
  • Excellent public awareness campaigns by both DWS and municipalities;
  • Good municipal implementation plans;
  • Adequate funding and prioritisation of resources to support initiatives;
  • Effective well-resourced mechanisms to implement and maintain irrigation restrictions; and
  • Vigorous implementation and publication of actions to ensure public support for the initiatives and buy-in for the voluntary water restrictions (walk the talk).

Curtail illegal irrigation water use: When this deplorable state of affairs was first identified in 2008 we were told that it would take four years to rectify. This was an unacceptably long time line even then, brought about by fear of losing court cases through lack of adequate irrigation abstraction records.

Illegal use has still not been brought down to acceptable limits, with about a quarter of the theft still taking place in the most important water control areas in the country. At the incremental cost of exploiting water resources this loss is costing over R300m per year.

Expedite LHWP-2

While it is already too late for Polihale Dam to help us with the current drought, it is totally unacceptable that it is already five years behind schedule. It is vitally important that this project is expedited with no further delays to ensure that it will be available to increase the yield of the Vaal River System, which would well be deep into deficit by 2025.

The public’s role

Unfortunately who is to blame does not alter the sad fact that we, the public, are in a mess and it is now imperative that we restrict the demand end of the leaking supply pipeline that is also artificially throttled at the supply end. The blame game has to be resolved politically. In parallel it is essential that we do what we can to save the water resources that are essential to our well-being. We simply don’t have any alternative.

Yes, it really grates us to see the public being unjustly branded the bad guys, just like Eskom did to shift blame for their own abysmal failures in the years leading up to 2007 when load-shedding hit us. The similarities are not coincidental. A lot of damage control publicity is required to win back the support of the public.

The bottom line is that we just have to knuckle down and restrict our own water demand, to whatever level is required to secure what is left of our precious water resource.

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