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Southern Africa is in its most severe drought in 35 years, 18 million people need humanitarian assistance in the region. We as users have a role to play, and it isn't all about consuming less.

Recovery will be slow despite predictions of above-average rainfall over large parts of the region between now and February next year.

Johannesburg Water, the city's utility, imposed Level 2 restrictions on residential water use in November 2015, limiting watering of gardens to daylight hours, banning filling of swimming pools with municipal water, restricting car washing to hose pipes and forbidding the use of sprinklers at any time.

On 5 September 2016, the City of Johannesburg appealed to all residents for an immediate 15% cut in water consumption, citing the drought and unusually high temperatures as reasons for the crisis.

"If the residents of the City of Johannesburg do not reduce their water usage‚ there will be water shedding‚ Johannesburg Water will throttle the system.. in areas where there is high demand". Fines would be levied to any residents not complying with these restrictions .

The ongoing drought was cited as the reason for low (25-30%) water levels in the Vaal dam; the primary water source to the arid Gauteng province, which generates 34% of South Africa's GDP and 10% of Africa's GDP ($112 billion ).

In a media statement on 3 October 2016, Ministerial Spokesperson of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), Mlimandlela Ndamase said that "consumers need to change their behaviour".

By November 2016, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) had issued 314 fines for non-compliance with water restrictions, many offences reported through tip-offs received from other residents, "but obviously, it cannot be the JMPD that is doing the policing, but we need to self-govern and self-regulate. So, complexes and neighbours, we need to look after one another to ensure that we save that 15%." Consumers were urged to continue reporting non-compliance by phoning the JMPD 24/7 line on 011 758 9650.

An article entitled "Despite SA's worst drought in decades, homes in suburbs are wasting water willy-nilly" named and shamed the areas with highest water use across the country. In Johannesburg, "the biggest household water users live in Waterval in Midrand, where each property laps up 159 000 litres a month, trailed by Witpoort at 111 000 litres and Westcliff, where homes use 96 000 litres a month. Households in Parktown use on average 90 000 litres a month, and North Riding properties use 87 000 litres a month". Diepkloof (an informal settlement) and Alexandra, a large and predominantly impoverished township, were also fingered.

But is the drought and irresponsible water use the problem?

"It is disingenuous to lay all the blame on the Vaal River System water users. Sure, the public has been slow to apply water restrictions. But they are not to blame for us having water restrictions this year. The system is designed to carry us through a much longer drought". (Chris Herold, Head of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering).

What are the real reasons for the water restrictions?

We're facing a cumulative impact from all of these factors:

1. Transfer pumps not working: The Tugela-Vaal water transfer pumps were not able to transfer water at anything close to specification. By end September 2016, an average of 7.1m3/s had been pumped instead of the 20m3/s that the pumps are designed to deliver. In addition, only one of the four pumps delivering water from Heyshope Dam in the uSuthu catchment to the Vaal upstream of Grootdraai Dam (which supplies critically important power stations and the Sasol-Secunda complex) was working.

2. Failure to curtail municipal water leakage: Municipalities were instructed to reduce non-revenue water (water lost due to leakages or poor billing systems) by 15% by 2010 by reducing leakages. The planned commissioning date for Polihale Dam in Lesotho was set at 2020 on this basis. However, by 2014 around 37% of all water supplied to municipalities was still being lost and water leakages have increased rather than decreased. The system yield has been pushed into deeper and deeper deficit as water demands have grown.
"Without these two failures, we would have about 11% more water in storage and 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" (Herold 2016 ). The Tugela-Vaal pumps are still not delivering anything near their planned capacity and it will take a long time to make meaningful inroads into the municipal water losses.

3. Water restrictions delayed by municipal elections: When storage in the Vaal river system slipped below 60% in May this year, it was agreed that 15% restrictions on urban demand and 20% restrictions on irrigation demand were to be imposed with immediate effect. The announcement was however delayed by 3 months because of the upcoming municipal elections. It took until November 2016 before these restrictions were partially effected, the 6 month delay in action will have a knock-on effect on system storage, which will decline more rapidly, bringing forward the date when tougher decisions will be needed.

4. Lesotho Water Highlands Project Phase 2 is 5 years too late: The Polihale Dam can only be commissioned by 2025. Based on 1930s and 1980s drought, critical drought sequences in the Vaal river system are 8.5 years long. The current drought began 2.5 years ago, so should it persist we would have another six years of drought ahead. Had the Polihale dam been delivering from 2020, this sequence would be broken. That is now not possible.

What needs to be done to fix it?

In order of priority: defective pumps need to be repaired; pipe refurbishment and maintenance programmes need to be effected with sufficient human and financial resources; municipalities need to respond rapidly to water leaks at any scale; technical management capacity needs to be revitalised within DWS and municipalities; water restrictions need to be strictly and rapidly applied with advanced warning and excellent public awareness campaigns and effective, well-resourced measures are needed to implement and enforce irrigation restrictions.

What about users?

We do need to change our behaviour, but not only to conserve water. And in their late and sloppy efforts to reduce consumption, the public communication messages from DWS, utilities and bulk providers have been a little misleading. It is not the current drought, unusually high temperatures or residential over-use that precipitated this crisis; its broken outdated infrastructure, weak technical management capacity, poor planning and slow responsiveness that got us here.

Yes, we need to use water wisely, reduce our consumption and report offenders and leakages. We also need to keep informed, we need to understand the real issues and keep pressure on those with the legal and constitutional mandate to ensure a secure supply of water to all who live in our country.

Water users have responsibilities and we have rights; one of those rights is to hold duty bearers to account. Unless government authorities and water providers act rapidly to address the root causes of this crisis, there will be no future security of supply, for any of us.

We are not to blame but we have an important role to play. Ask the hard questions, hold duty bearers to account, don't let go until the pumps are fixed, until the leaks are sealed, until the infrastructure is refurbished, until metering and billing systems are accurate. Engage your local councillor, put pressure on responsible authorities, hold your water provider to account, and don't be afraid to engage the media.

Water is precious and our security of supply has been made precarious by irresponsible decisions, slow responses, poor public finance priorities and a lack of maintenance of national and municipal infrastructure. Let's make this work, buy the rainwater tanks, use them to fill your pool and water your garden, recycle greywater. And exercise your rights; don't stop asking the hard questions.

Disclaimer

At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.