Our electricity woes can be fixed but our water stress can’t

Over the past few weeks the media has been all over the unfolding disaster with Eskom and the debate to separate the SOE into three functional units. The reality is that with Eskom, we at least have options to help solve the impending crisis, but our water situation is as dire – are we really going to try ship icebergs from Antarctica? Not to mention that our power stations need significant amounts of water to run properly! 

To bring our water infrastructure system back into a manageable state, according to industry experts, it’s going to cost almost R900-billion. On face value this is almost twice the problem of Eskom, the only difference is that yes, we could end up privatising electricity supply but how will we privatise a resource that no longer exists, like water supply?

damsCaption: Most power generation plants use fossil fuels or hydro-electric plants require water to work.
Image credit: Power Technology

By now it is common knowledge that South Africa is already a water scarce country and, in fact, receives almost half of the rainfall than the average country in the world receives. We have invested pretty much nothing into building more dams over the past 25 years, which has been a big mistake, but even if we had – just take a drive through the Karoo and see all of the dams there, they are totally empty, dry to the core.

New dams take years if not decades to construct, and desalination plants to satisfy needs of the country will also take years and many billions of rands to bring into the system. Our aquifers will take hundreds of years to replenish if this was the next step for us. Our water security should be a bigger concern than challenges that have solutions.

Now, although a lot of emphasis has been placed on water scarcity, we rarely look at the impact from a plumbing perspective and the impact on our drainage and sewers. I’m sure you have experienced roughing it for a few days without an endless supply of water and letting the ‘No1s’ stew in the toilet, or a tub-scrub to clean up, but what we don’t see we don’t really care about, which is a common human trait.

Our entire plumbing and drainage system has been created based on the assumption that waste-water will flow and carry away our mess, but has any serious consideration really been given to what would happen if we truly had to run out of water. We are after all, a reactive population rather than pro-active one. We would essentially be at such high risk at every water outlet and every drainage point in the country as those germs would have free reign.

Blockages will occur almost immediately exposing even the high-end communities to sewage on their doorsteps along with all of the risk that comes with it. We would be at risk of disease in our own homes through bacteria and pathogens overrunning our taps, toilets and any areas where water could stand, such as traps and pipes. We would also likely have an epidemic of insects such as mosquitos invading any last puddle of water there is, and any vent would connect us directly to our own mess.

Geysers would fail by the millions, pipes would perish and municipal supply, drains and stormwater infrastructure would crumble, pumps would burn out, wastewater treatment facilities could not continue to operate, industry would come to a standstill and medical services would cease. All of these real scenarios would also leave an aftermath of financial distress even if supply could be restored temporarily or permanently.

Once this point has been reached, recovery is impossible and essentially South Africa would become a slum. What boreholes still operate and rainwater tanks that have any water will be depleted within a week as everyone tries to survive. Even if every single house in south Africa had a 5 000-litre rainwater tank that was full, with the average conservative consumption per person a day, that reserve would be exhausted before a month is up.

Although this may all seem an over-dramatic example, it is an illustration of the true reality. Should we not be spending time and allocating more funds to fixing things that can truly bring our country to the point of death? With electricity we always have solar and wind power as alternatives but short of rain replenishing our dams consistently, by 2025 we will indeed be sitting in a situation that is not ideal. Its not enough for government and local municipalities to shift the blame, pass the ball onto the private sector, make excuses and definitely not have a ‘wait and see what happens’ approach.

I welcome your comments on this. Please get in touch by emailing me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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