No more trifling with water restrictions

After a phony war of the past few months, it seems that Gauteng municipalities are now getting serious about water restrictions.

They may have to, since Rand Water has been instructed by the Department of Water and Sanitation to reduce the amount of water it takes from the Vaal River. If the department, which controls the Vaal Dam, actually reduces the flow, they will have no alternative but to comply.

So municipalities have been told to cut consumption by 15% and have happily implemented penalty tariffs — Johannesburg actually started with this of their own accord some months ago. But very little is being said about what impact the penalty tariffs have had. And if no-one is talking about how much consumption has been reduced, it is safe to say that very little has been achieved.

At some point, this is going to have to change. The problem for all the municipalities is that it’s unclear what steps they can take. Where water is metered, they could introduce a new billing system where users are penalised even more if they don’t reduce their usage compared to the previous year. Of course, that’s a bit harsh on people who are already saving water.
More to the point, it doesn’t address the problem of people who do not have meters or who just don’t pay. Again, part of the problem is that municipalities are cagey: they would rather not talk about these issues because they are politically sensitive.

But leaving communities without water is also politically sensitive. So the new councils that recently took to power are facing a baptism of fire.

Johannesburg will be particularly interesting. Anthony Still, the new MMC (that’s the councillor in charge) of infrastructure and environmental services has one great advantage: he used to run Johannesburg Water and so should have a good idea about what can and can’t be done. So it will be worth watching to see what approach Johannesburg takes.

But I doubt he was behind the message tweeted a few days after he was appointed, which came with a dire warning: “We should all avoid level 3 water restrictions at all cost. They are severe and will be unbearable to deal with.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that the only reason for introducing level 3 restrictions is if level 2 is not working. And if people are not obeying the current set of restrictions, why should they take any notice of the next set?

So there is work to be done. Meanwhile, since it will soon start to rain (I hope), I am focusing my attention on the long term.

Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has allowed the next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to slip way behind schedule for reasons that do not look particularly creditable. In a few years’ time, the Gauteng region will be vulnerable and it will take more than warning tweets about level 3 restrictions to keep the water flowing from the taps if we experience drought again. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

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