Monday, July 15, 2024

South Africa’s infrastructure crisis deepens as Johannesburg taps run dry

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Parts of South Africa’s largest city have been without running water for almost a fortnight, a reminder to voters of the parlous state of the country’s infrastructure just two months out from a general election.

Africa’s most industrialised economy has been buffeted by power blackouts, transport problems and a crippling failure of service delivery that threaten the rule of the governing African National Congress.

The prolonged outage that has left taps dry across a swath of Johannesburg and the wider Gauteng province signals a deepening crisis in the water system during one of the hottest months of the year.

Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN, a civil society group, said the region that is South Africa’s industrial heartland was “on the brink of a catastrophic water supply crisis”. The government and water authorities “have not spent the required money on maintenance for about a decade — now they’re really just chasing their tails.”

Jana Porter, a marketing executive for an non-governmental organisation, woke up on March 3 to find there was no running water in her home in a northern Johannesburg suburb. But, having recently dipped into her savings to buy a 2,200 litre back-up tank, she was confident about riding out the outage. “We were thinking, ‘what’s the longest it could possibly be out? It’s really not the end of the world.’”

Almost two weeks later, amid a heatwave that sent temperatures soaring, the taps were still dry. “We were literally at a point where we weren’t flushing toilets, the garden was wilting, we couldn’t really cook. We just let the washing pile up, we weren’t really able to bathe,” she said.

While water shortages in the wealthy suburbs are becoming more frequent, such outages have long been a problem in less affluent areas. The near-daily blackouts affect the pumps that supply the sprawling townships where roughly half of Gauteng’s population live.

Residents of the Alexandra township have endured erratic supplies for weeks. “There’s really nothing we can do about it. We just have to vote when the time comes,” said Ashley Moss, whose earnings as a barber have been slashed by the shortages.

South Africa’s crumbling infrastructure is dominating the national conversation ahead of the pivotal May 29 vote. The ANC, whose vote share is widely predicted to drop below 50 per cent for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994, has pledged to end power blackouts that cost the economy about $50mn daily by the end of the year, although many doubt their ability to do this. Fixing the creaking water system will be no less complicated.

Gauteng’s water infrastructure was designed in the interwar years to feed the gold reefs and mining industry on which the city was built.

Craig Sheridan, director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of Witwatersrand, said only about 30km of its pipelines were being upgraded each year, rather than the 200km required. A lack of managerial and technical oversight compounded the problem, he added.

“They’re catching the problems, but as quickly as you catch one, more and more are popping up. The gophers are multiplying.”

Rand Water, the supplier to Johannesburg, said half of all potable water running through pipes was lost to leaks, wastage and illegal connections.

South African municipalities also owe the country’s water boards almost R18bn ($959mn), hampering their ability to carry out upgrades. Johannesburg Water, Gauteng’s main distributor, has also said customers owe R16bn in unpaid water bills.

Experts say the R12bn Lesotho Highlands Water Project, originally scheduled for completion in 2020, should ease pressure on South Africa’s water systems once it is up and running in 2028. 

It is not just homes that are affected. Busisiwe Mavuso, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa, wrote in a newsletter this week that problems with the supply of water to manufacturers and mining companies posed further risks to economic activity.

“We cannot find ourselves in a situation where we have resolved the energy and logistics crises only to be confronted with a new [water] crisis that ultimately means economic activity doesn’t happen,” she said.

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