Water outages tailing load shedding requires government’s urgent intervention

The interconnectedness of water and the economy underscores the importance of addressing water outages, disruptions, and shortages comprehensively, writes Miyelani Holeni.

South Africa may not fall on the list of African countries that are “critically water insecure,” but it is a low-rainfall country that is not immune to sporadic periods of drought.

Climate change and associated volatility are likely to turn South Africa into a drought-prone country. The recent Global Water Security 2023 Assessment report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health identified 13 African countries as water insecure. At the top of the list of these countries is Chad, and the last country on the list of 13 is South Sudan and Sudan.

Over the previous 12 months, South African municipalities have experienced an increase in water insecurity, in the form of water outages, disruptions, and shortages, or ‘water shedding’, on top of the electricity load shedding currently plaguing the entire country.

After long and deep reflection, I could not find any credible explanation regarding the unfolding crisis in our water resources, but to arrive at the point that water outages, disruptions, and shortages are now tailing the load shedding of electricity closely.

Water shedding is now a frequent phenomenon in our lives, with more devastating effects that last for periods exceeding a week, or months in some places.

Water shedding is not just an environmental concern; it is a pressing economic issue with profound implications for businesses and communities globally. As a crucial resource for agriculture, manufacturing, and essential services, water plays a pivotal role in driving economic growth. However, with water shedding becoming more prevalent, it is now more urgent than ever to address the underlying causes.

In a sector such as agriculture, which is the vanguard of food security, water is at the centre of food production, from seeds in the ground to food items reaching the supermarket shelf.

Water outages, disruptions, and shortages directly impact businesses, disrupting operations, and constraining productivity. Companies are compelled to adjust work schedules, resulting in decreased productivity and reduced growth potential. Particularly in labour-intensive industries like manufacturing, water shortages not only impede production, but also hinder the production of goods for sale or export, thus stifling economic progress.

Households are also affected as water is relied upon daily for drinking, washing, cooking, and cleaning by all citizens. The implications of water scarcity extend beyond immediate industries to encompass entire value chains in different sectors, including municipalities.

Municipalities are at the centre of these unfortunate water outages, disruptions, and shortages as they are largely tasked with managing, maintaining, and building new water infrastructure.

Water is a critical revenue earner for municipalities due to supplying bulk water to industry, clean water for commercial and residential end-users. Municipalities seem to have lost critical skills across the water supply value chain that formed part of its capability of running water resources.

Recently, metros have also been found wanting in the water crisis, and this is a concern, as they have historically employed engineers, scientists, and technicians. The combination of these skills is crucial for running an ultra-functional water services and engineering department.

Municipalities must attract these skills back into their fold, and implement a training programme for newly-qualified engineers to attain professional certification in the different disciplines of engineering. They must collaborate with the likes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and source services from the private sector to support the planning, design, and scientific aspects of water quality.

There is an apparent absence of long-term planning in the development of water infrastructure, which can be achieved through creating a master plan that spans over a 20 to 30-year period.

The master plan would be the guiding document for the new water infrastructure build, according to the growth in population, new township developments, extensions to industry, and new road networks. A municipality must have a strong planning capability within the relevant departments and should also rope in other experts to refine these plans, and reduce them to a business plan to finance the build programme, and detailed specifications to enable the procurement.

Maintenance of existing infrastructure is perhaps more important and cheaper than building new infrastructure. Maintenance of water infrastructure assets keeps the components in good working order and can increase the lifespan and reduce unplanned outages and disruptions in the supply of water supply.

The wear and tear of the various pipes and components have severely undermined the supply of water to business, industry, and citizens, to the point where some decided to sink boreholes to bypass the municipality.

In response to those who cannot afford to drill boreholes, municipalities have invested in a fleet of water tankers, or outsourced this to service providers with such trucks to supply water, at a cost and degradation of human dignity. Maintenance requires proper plans, setting aside the budget to finance the work, and the discipline to follow plans to the letter.

In some of the reports and interviews, some emerging issues being blamed were the disruptions in the supply of water to electricity, or that the equipment failed at the point of restoring water supply, or we could not find the fault in the network.

These and other explanations of why things did not work out as they should are not helpful to the end users of water. Municipalities must invest in a comprehensive asset management program of having the water infrastructure digitised into credible software, coupled with a master data of all the assets, and a visualisation tool to show the entire network.

The digitisation of infrastructure will ensure that no information is lost and delays in tracing the faults are minimised. Since water pump stations and treatment works are reliant on electricity, municipalities must consider investing in alternative energy sources to act as a backup in case of power outages or load shedding.

The water outages, disruptions, and shortages are not unique to South Africa, and thus we should learn from those who have experienced similar problems but are now doing well.

Successful navigation of water-related challenges by countries demonstrates a commitment to long-term planning, backed by adequate skills, capabilities, and financial resources. By investing in robust water networks and infrastructure, these nations fortify their economies, laying the groundwork for sustained growth.

The interconnectedness of water and the economy underscores the importance of addressing water outages, disruptions, and shortages comprehensively.

Without a reliable water supply, growth projections falter, undermining the stability of entire economies. The ripple effect of a water crisis stifles upstream industries and extends this downstream into the various value chains, further exacerbating economic constraints.

As the saying goes, “don’t waste a crisis.” This is one crisis that should kick stakeholders into action – policymakers, planners, engineers, financiers, consultants, contractors, asset managers, environmentalists, sustainability officers, etc., to produce long-term financed master plans for infrastructure development of the future and the fixing of the current challenges.

Finally, effective governance and transparent decision-making is essential in ensuring sustainable development and access to water resources.

Prioritising accountability and fostering collaboration among stakeholders are key to navigating the challenges posed by water outages, disruptions, and shortages, to foster inclusive economic growth for generations to come.

It is only through proactive measures and collective efforts can we ensure that water remains a catalyst for prosperity, rather than a hindrance to progress.

This is the opportune time for stakeholders to seize the opportunity to rid us of the triple water ills of outages, disruptions, and shortages, to forge a new path towards a more resilient, antifragile, and prosperous future for all.

Miyelani Holeni is the Group Chief Advisor at Ntiyiso Consulting Group.

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