Is our water in good hands?

This inter-basin transfer scheme is simply compensating for municipal leaks
This inter-basin transfer scheme is simply compensating for municipal leaks.

South Africa’s Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan recently spoke at an event where the theme was ‘Active citizens ensuring national resources are used for good’. One of his take home messages was “your money is in good hands”. This got me thinking about another national resource that is arguably more important than money and is increasingly on everyone’s mind: water.

Is our water in good hands?  If we are to believe Ivo Vegter, writing in the Daily Maverick, then the answer is clearly no. He describes the problem of water scarcity and apportions the blame in this way “…inadequate infrastructure mismanaged by government.”

What does the evidence tell us? Let’s start with some basics about the uMngeni River Basin that provides water for 6 million people and supports a regional GDP valued at R 462 billion. It covers an area of 4,440 km2 and has an average annual rainfall of about 1,000mm. This means that, theoretically, rainfall provides about 4.44 billion cubic metres of water annually for us to work with. Practically most of this water is not available – it evaporates or is transpired by plants. About 15% – or 674 million cubic metres – annually ends up flowing down our rivers and streams in the system. The dams on the uMngeni are able to store a little less than 800 million cubic metres of water but they do not constitute our largest water storage facility. The soils of the river basin have the potential to store double that – 1.6 billion cubic metres – which, as an aside, provides a rather compelling argument for soil conservation.

Who are the big water users in the river basin? Umgeni Water processes and supplies about 400 million cubic metres of water annually from the uMngeni system and supplies it on to the three water service authorities. eThekwini and parts of Ugu Municipality use 78% of this, Msunduzi 14.2% and uMgungundlovu 7.8%. Commercial forestry plantations of about 650,000 hectares are estimated to use 64 million cubic metres annually. Alien invasive wattle trees in the catchment are estimated to consume 7.2 million cubic metres of water over and above what would have been consumed by natural vegetation. Formal water licensing for irrigation purposes indicates that farmers are entitled to abstract about 58 million cubic metres annually from the rivers, streams and dams. Registered use from boreholes is very low at only 1.5 million cubic metres.

So, the largest users of water are our water service authorities who supply us with water for domestic, commercial and industrial use. How well are they looking after our water and how much is being wasted? Wastage can take a number of forms: it can be direct leaks from pipes, unbilled authorised consumption or it might be illegal consumption and metering inaccuracies. These combined losses are referred to as Non-Revenue Water (NRW). For eThekwini this constitutes 40% of its total and direct leaks account for 30%; for Msunduzi the total is 45% with leaks accounting for 20% and in the uMgungundlovu District the total is 56% of which 25% constitutes leaks. Without going into detail, the bottom-line is that we are losing more water and revenue equivalents from failing municipal infrastructure and services than is being used by irrigated agriculture and commercial forestry combined. If we value the water at what it costs the water service authorities – about R 6 per cubic metre – and set the overall loss at 40% then we are wasting R 960 million annually. If we value the water at a municipal sale price of about R 20 per cubic metre we are wasting R 3.2 billion!

Considering eThekwini alone because it is by far the largest water user: if one were to halve the water lost through leaks (from 30% to 15%) this translates into 47 million cubic metres of water that would not need to be purchased; a saving of R 282 million. If one were to halve the lost revenue from illegal connections (from 10% to 5%) that would translate into increased revenue of R 312 million. Together this would give eThekwini more than half a billion rand annually to invest in infrastructure development and maintenance.

Considering the uMngeni River Basin overall, over the past six months we have pumped 64 million cubic metres of water from the upper Mooi through the Mearns and Spring Grove transfer schemes to replenish the drought-hit system. During that same period between 46 and 56 million cubic metres of water leaked out of the pipes. We have built a multi-billion rand dam and transfer scheme largely to compensate for the leaks!

So, water is clearly not in good hands and Ivo Vegter is correct – we have inadequate infrastructure that is being mismanaged by government. But if we go back to Pravin Gordhan’s assertion that “our money is in good hands” what he is really saying is that we have a sound fiscal policy. In reality money is in everyone’s hands. If we all decide to remove our money from the banks our fiscal policy is meaningless – the system will crash. In the same way as money, the responsibility for managing water is in everyone’s hands. If we all open the taps our water policy is meaningless and we will crash.

I do not have the answers to the problems. No single individual and no single organisation has the answers – it requires an integrated response by government, business and civil society. In developing solutions, we should recognise exactly that; that water resource management is everyone’s business. Second, we need to be far more transparent about the problems and their possible solutions – not simply building more dams when we should be fixing leaks. Third, we need to be sharing information far more broadly so that everyone who wants to can contribute to finding solutions. Finally, we need to invest far more in our green infrastructure so that it can sustain our water yield and protect our built infrastructure.

Duncan Hay is the Executive Director of the Institute of Natural Resources. This article first appeared in The Mercury, a daily newspaper in Durban.