The devastating effects of water shedding

By Martin Czernowalow

While South Africa battles against the effects of the current drought, industry experts have come out strongly against the potential implementation of water shedding.

Despite water restrictions across several South African municipal districts to curb water consumption, government might need to consider more drastic measures, such as water shedding.

However, industry experts have slammed this as an ineffectual way of dealing with water shortages, pointing out that the strategy could have severe adverse effects on infrastructure and is indicative of a systemic failure of government’s ability to provide basic services.

That the country is facing a potential disaster was recently highlighted by water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who warned that Gauteng’s water supply levels are so low that they are virtually at the “point of no return”.

“We are at a point of no return and hence we now have to protect what we have,” the minister said.

This comes as Mokonyane revealed at a recent media briefing that the Vaal Dam — one of the Gauteng province’s biggest water sources — was at 30.1% capacity and losing about 0.8% every week.

This means that if consumers and municipalities fail to adhere to government’s directive to cut water use by 15%, the dam’s level could drop to 25% by 14 November, according to projections by the Department of Water and Sanitation. The Vaal Dam system is fed water from 14 dams and supplies water to some 13 million Gauteng residents as well as parts of the North West Province and the Free State.

A prolonged drought — which has seen rainfall in 2015 at its lowest level since recordkeeping began in 1904 — has been the cause of far less water filling up rivers and dams across the country, prompting government to introduce water restrictions in various provinces.

In the case of the Vaal Dam, the danger of the declining water levels has seen the Department of Water and Sanitation gazette a 15% restriction on water usage. But this has seen limited success, with consumers failing to adhere to restrictions.

Water supplies cut

In light of this, Rand Water and the Department of Water and Sanitation have adopted an even stricter stance: water supplies to all municipalities across the province were recently cut by 15%. Rand Water is responsible for the distribution of water in Gauteng and draws its purification water mainly from the Vaal Dam.

Mokonyane warned that if water consumption did not reduce between November and January, the entire Vaal River system could collapse. She noted that agriculture constitutes 62% of the country’s water use, urban domestic users 23%, rural consumers 4%, and power generation 2%.

However, in Gauteng, 79% of the water goes to urban domestic use, 9% to mining and other industrial activity, 6% to agriculture, and 5% to power generation. Of the 79% going to urban domestic use, 40% goes towards non-human consumption such as gardening and recreational activities.

Should the measures fail to lower consumption, it is perhaps not inconceivable that government may move to implement even stricter efforts to clamp down on water usage, such as water shedding. Yet, according to industry stakeholders, this is far from the silver bullet that would assist the country in surviving the current drought.

Instead, water shedding could have potentially devastating effects on South Africa’s water infrastructure and could see the country ending up with an even greater water crisis on its hands.

Despite this, water shedding is something that government is considering, with an official from Johannesburg Water recently saying that while it would be a last resort, the utility is not ruling out implementing water shedding, should the city’s water consumption continue to remain high.

Speaking during a panel discussion on water conservation that included representatives from the Department of Water and Sanitation and research bodies, Etienne Hugo, general manager of operations at Johannesburg Water, said the utility would explore all other methods to encourage consumer compliance with conservation efforts, before considering water shedding.

“Penalties are currently being imposed before we get to water shedding, but I think the big thing is that people need to understand the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

No benefit

Yet, while not ruling out water shedding as a possibility, Hugo did acknowledge that water shedding is a harsher measure than electricity load-shedding, as water that has been switched off doesn’t flow immediately once reconnected. He also admitted that constantly disconnecting and reconnecting water flow could damage pipes that are old and cannot handle being constantly pressurised and depressurised.

Industry experts have also come out strongly against this, saying there are no benefits to be gained from water shedding.

Water expert Professor Anthony Turton says water shedding is nothing more than systemic failure. “It is the final step in a long and complex process of decline and will not curb consumption at all. On the contrary: it will disrupt the economy significantly, adding yet another layer of complexity to the whole issue of job creation, economic recovery and the overall investment worthiness of the South African economy,” he notes.

Turton argues that water shedding has the capacity to inflame emotions and fuel social disruption, and calls it just another risk that investors need to consider when deciding to invest (or disinvest) in South Africa.

“It’s just another risk that landlords and commercial real estate developers need to consider when designing new shopping malls, commercial offices or residential estates,” he says.

Commenting on the potential risks to infrastructure that water shedding could pose, Turton explains that pipes are unlike cables. “They need to fill up and this can take days. When water is shed, consumers continue to draw the water through the system, creating a vacuum.

“This sucks contaminated water into the pipes. Potable water pipes are pressure pipes and the system is not designed to operate at a low or negative pressure. There are many knock-on effects, so water shedding is but another rung on the ladder of state failure,” he points out.

Turton also has harsh words for the ideological aspect of water shedding, pointing out that all democratic governments are based on the notion of a social contract. Individuals, he says, surrender their rights to personal security in all forms (economic, physical, food and water) to a central authority in return for the right of that authority to levy taxes.

Social contract

“That is the heart of the modern state. Water shedding is thus a revocation of that social contract. In effect, it is an admission by the state that it is unable to meet its part of the social contract, releasing the individual to resort to self-help.

“This has many ramifications that need to be understood. One is the accelerated loss of revenue to municipalities, as users question the value they are getting for their taxes. Another is a process of privatising the water value chain. Yet another consequence is the range of fiduciary risks that become evident as people are left to fend for themselves, being abandoned by the state. Then there is insurance risk when a fire breaks out and normal fire suppression or response systems are unable to do what has to be done. This is a complex issue that few have begun to think through in a sober manner.”

Turton also points out that water shedding has not been implemented as an effective measure anywhere else in the world, and calls it an admission of failure by the state.

“In places like Yemen, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, water supply is intermittent, so these are the benchmarks for our ‘success’. In those places, people fend for themselves — the central authority of the state is eroded in all cases. It is never a desired outcome,” he adds.

Turton says good leadership is needed from government to change the country’s water usage habits. “There is a deficit of trust evidenced across society. We need honest people to develop a plan that is credible and sustainable. We need more carrots of incentive to do things differently, and less big sticks to beat recalcitrant users.

“Government is the biggest polluter of water through the sewage discharge released daily into our rivers and dams, so it has lost the moral authority to give credible leadership.”

Economically disruptive

Turton is also critical of the current water restrictions that have been implemented across many municipalities in South Africa. “They are all disruptive to the economy at a time that we need economic stability.

“Water shedding is just another risk for investors to consider. It is just another cost of doing business in South Africa. Government needs to start by fixing the many leaking pipes, dysfunctional sewers and broken pump stations. It needs to start by having technically competent people in key positions.”

In terms of its impact on infrastructure, Turton points out that water shedding allows air to enter pipes. When re-pressurised, this causes a ‘hydraulic hammer’ (pressure surge) that causes significant damage to infrastructure. “This is highly predictable so it is not a figment of imagination. This has many unintended consequences, including — but not limited to — the accelerated failure of geysers that have been compromised by the presence of limescale,” he says.

Jan Venter, CEO of the Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association, is also critical of any suggestions of water shedding, saying it is not the preferred way of saving water.

“Shutting down the flow in pipes could lead to the influx of dirt and other contaminants. Closing and opening of valves could increase the risk of new leaks in old piping systems,” he points out.

He notes that government, as a responsible entity, should not even be considering water shedding. “They have been warned for a number of years about the potential of a water crisis in South Africa, but for reasons of their own did not consider this a priority. Had it not been for a number of good rainfall seasons, the problem would have hit us sooner.”

 

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