Water Crisis Looms in South Africa

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. 

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

Awareness of the world’s mounting freshwater troubles has bubbled to the top of South Africa’s political agenda.

Briefings by experts on the over-use and abuse of the country’s water supplies have so alarmed some labor unions that they are threatening strike action unless the government takes active steps to divert the crisis.

The business community is no less concerned. They too have come out of briefings deeply worried that the water situation would undermine the country’s development if it continued along the present course.

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Trucks deliver drinking water to villagers in South Africa. The post-apartheid government has made great progress in providing freshwater delivery systems over the past 16 years. But will South Africa have enough water to go around?

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns  

Their concerns are expressed in a report issued after experts sat down to roundtable talks with Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) and the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), an independent policy research and advocacy organization that focuses on critical national development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation.

Speaking of a coming crisis of water security and quality, the report says it is clear from the meeting that mounting problems with South Africa’s water supply could impede its social and economic development, as is indeed already happening in some localities.

“South Africans may one day have to make do with significantly less water per capita. For a country already using almost all its available water resources, this would be a dramatic change.” 

“On current trends, South Africans may one day have to make do with significantly less water per capita. For a country already using almost all its available water resources, this would be a dramatic change, with far-reaching implications for households, businesses, communities and government,” it says.

The unions took a more strident line in statements issued after water experts presented seminars to their United Association of South Africa (UASA) and Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa).

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Small dam on the Orange River near Upington, heartland of South Africa’s dry country.

NGS stock photo by Michael Fay

With research showing South Africa is using 98 percent of its available water supply, UASA president Costa Raftaploulos has been quoted by The Star newspaper in Johannesburg as saying, “South Africa sits on a water time bomb which will affect each and every person within her borders. Enough has been said to confirm that we are dealing with a problem of gigantic proportions.”

“South Africa sits on a water time bomb which will affect each and every person within her borders. Enough has been said to confirm that we are dealing with a problem of gigantic proportions.”

The unions have submitted applications for the right to strike in terms of legislation that permits them to do so to promote or defend the socio-economic interests of workers. Central government’s water affairs department has described the strike threat as “bizarre at best,” but the union action has nevertheless had immediate success by prompting the government to join the unions in a steering committee to plot the way ahead. The committee even has a representative of the South African President’s Office serving on it.

Apparently the committee’s first meeting became quite heated, with the unions charging that the authorities had been showing little urgency in addressing the crisis threatening the health and safety of humans, animals and agriculture alike. But union members said afterwards that agreement was reached on the process going forward.

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Girls carrying water pails from a stream in their village. Between 1996 and 2009, the share of South Africa’s households with access to clean water rose from 62 percent to 92 percent, even if it’s a shared neighborhood tap.. 

NGS stock photo by James P. Blair

The looming water crisis is being put down to several factors, or rather a combination of these.

Dry Country

The first is that South Africa is listed as a dry country. This means the country needs to adopt a new attitude to water usage, away from its present wastefulness. It needs a reassessment particularly in agriculture, that sector being the biggest user of freshwater. It also needs pipelines to be kept in better order to reduce wastage.

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Discarded gold tailings pollute the water and air of Johannesburg.

NGS stock photo by George Steinmetz

Another factor is the way available water is getting fouled up by acid water flowing from mines, and the way sewage is spilling into rivers. (Read my earlier blog post: South African gold industry leaves legacy of massive water contamination.)

Operating mines are subject to strict controls of their acid water. They have to treat water pumped out of mine tunnels into reservoirs to get the acid levels down before releasing it into rivers, which in turn can only happen when these are in reasonable flow from rain. The problem comes with low-budget mines for which licences keep being handed out, despite the attached cost and inexperience resulting in acid-water spillages.

The biggest problem, however, lies with long-abandoned mines which are filling up with water and decanting their toxic contents, with the original owners no longer being around to take responsibility for pumping out the water and treating it. Thus it is up to the authorities to take charge and to bear the costs at taxpayers’ expense.

Hitherto there has been a reluctance to act on the acid-water problem, but now the government has appointed a team of experts to assess the situation and come up with solutions.

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Farmer and worker examining soil in a plowed wheat field. The agricultural sector is the biggest user of freshwater in South Africa. 

NGS stock photo by James P. Blair

A new factor looming ever larger is the spillage of raw or improperly processed sewage into river systems. It is the result of municipalities not maintaining their sewage works properly, or causing them to break down altogether. Analysts say over ninety percent of the country’s sewage plants are not working properly, which is the major reason why the quality of the country’s river water has dropped by twenty percent over the past five years.

The collapse of sewage systems has in large part been ascribed to the complexities surrounding South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule to an all-race democracy sixteen years ago. The reports submitted by analysts suggest that through the change-over to black-majority control of municipalities and affirmative-action appointments, vital skills and experience got lost. The business people and unionists now want government to see to it, urgently, that municipalities restore their sewage works to good working order.

A local organization named the Environment and Conservation Association has added its voice to the concerns, warning that eighty percent of South Africa’s fresh water would be so badly polluted in five years’ time that it would be unfit for drinking.

Leon Marshall.jpg

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn