New ‘Water-shifting’ policy is govt admission of water supply systems failures – Anthony Turton 

First, we had loadshedding, the government’s euphemism for power blackouts in South Africa, which is a bane for our citizens, weighing down the economy and deterring investment. Now, the government has come up with another obscure word, ‘water-shifting’. It is loadshedding for water services that residents of Gauteng have experienced in the past months, especially those in higher-lying areas like Brixton where the supply was cut off for 3 weeks. In an interview with Biznews, water resource management expert, Professor Tony Turton from the University of the Free State, says this policy is an admission by the government that the water supply system in South Africa has failed. The water issue, he says, is not one of scarcity. Dams and rivers are currently at their highest levels in two decades. The core issue lies in the mismanagement and distribution of water, primarily within metropolitan areas. Professor Turton says the blame for the failures should not be shifted to consumers. High water usage figures are due to leakage rather than excessive consumption. He said it is not all doom and gloom as control over water supply is now being wrested away from the government through private initiatives, similar to what happened in the electricity sector. Professor Turton does not see boreholes as the solution due to their low yield and contamination issues, particularly in Johannesburg after 120 years of mining activities. Ultimately, he said, South Africa faces a difficult choice, and the country will have to start recycling, recapturing, and retreating water. – Linda van Tilburg

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Timestamps Below

00:08 – Introduction and Water Shifting

01:42 – Water Supply Problems in South Africa

02:55 – Causes of Water Supply Issues

07:20 – Solutions and the Role of the Private Sector

10:43 – Challenges of Boreholes and the Future of Water Supply

14:46 – Emerging Trends in Water Management

18:36 – Implications for Households

23:15 – Water Safety and Treatment

24:56 – Conclusion


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Edited Excerpts from the Interview

First, we had loadshedding, now we have water-shifting

Water-shifting is the latest official policy from the South African government. It mirrors load shedding, but the difference is that load shedding is about controlling electrons flowing over wires, and water shedding is about controlling molecules flowing through pipes. And, of course, a molecule is not an electron.

So, there are some fundamental differences between the two, and we’re going to be learning more about those differences in the very near future because, in effect, the policy of water shifting is an admission that the water supply system in South Africa has failed, at least in parts where water shifting is now becoming the official policy. So, it’s not a question of ‘is it going to fail?’ It has failed, and this is now the way to prevent the total collapse of the system.

The issue is not scarcity, it is a failure to manage and distribute water

The issue of water supply in South Africa is complex, but it’s not a question of whether we have water in the country. The irony is that, at the moment, certainly over the last six to 12 months, our dams and rivers across the country are the fullest they’ve been, at least in the last 20 years that I’m aware of. So, it’s not as if we don’t have water in the country. It’s not a water scarcity problem; that’s not what it is. What it is, is a failure of institutions to manage and distribute that water.

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So, we’re witnessing an institutional failure, mostly at the municipal level, and it’s predominantly occurring in major metros because those are the areas where the media has the greatest focus. We’re talking about Johannesburg, Durban, and the industrial area around what used to be known as Port Elizabeth and East London. These are the major areas where this kind of thing is happening at the moment. However, water-shifting is a relatively new policy, it is only just starting to be implemented now.

Three major forces colliding: Population growth, changes in legislation, skills lost 

We need to go back to 1994 when we became a democracy and compare the population in the country then to the current population. We’ll be very surprised to find that the population has virtually doubled in that period. So, that’s the one driver—the population has outstripped the capacity of infrastructure to deliver.

The second thing that’s happened is that overlaid on to that is the institutional requirement mandated by the two pieces of legislation that the ruling African National Congress brought in as the first legislation that they drafted from scratch. It was the National Water Act and the Water Services Act. What those two acts did was radically readjust the architecture of control of water and the governance structures governing how water is allocated in the country. That’s the second thing that happened.

The third thing that happened was that because of the political imperative of what was known as transformation, dealing with so-called equity issues, there was a radical restructuring of the skills base in these institutions. We had a major loss of skills at the very same time that the architecture of management was altered radically. This left behind no institutional memory in the municipalities because they were now expected to do things they had never done before.

Then, of course, on top of that, you’ve got the whole water scarcity issue, particularly with population growth, where there has been no significant infrastructure put in since 1994. In a nutshell, that’s kind of what happened. We’ve got these three major forces that are now colliding, and the collision of those three forces is now showing us the extent to which our water management institutions have failed.

The government is falsely trying to shift blame to consumers, 50% loss due to leaks

The figures being quoted in the media that Gauteng residents use around 300 litres of water per day compared to an international average of 173 litres is a misrepresentation. It reflects a false narrative propagated by authorities amidst the collapse of various systems, where blame-shifting becomes a consistent tactic. One aspect of blame-shifting involves placing responsibility on the consumer, and this is where the figures you mentioned are utilised.

However, what they fail to disclose in this figure is that 50% of all the water pumped into these major metropolitan systems is lost due to leaks in the pipes. If you factor in this 50% loss, South African water usage aligns with the global average. Therefore, it is inaccurate to claim that South African consumers are using more water than they should. This discrepancy stems from the unaccounted 50% loss.

Returning to this 50% loss, regardless of the efforts of bulk water producers, a substantial portion of the water leaks out before reaching the end user. Essentially, we’re attempting to pressurise a system that resembles a leaking sieve or filling up a bucket with multiple holes. This is the primary reason why these systems have failed. It’s not a matter of whether they will fail; they have already failed.

Until we address and rectify these leaks, and until leadership ceases attempts to shift blame onto others and takes responsibility for the necessary actions, I believe we won’t witness a resolution to this problem.

None of the water management institutions have the capacity to self-correct 

What we’ve been witnessing so far is a series of developments. Initially, we often encounter a misdiagnosed problem. Accurate diagnosis is crucial, as an incorrect diagnosis leads to the application of an inappropriate solution to a misidentified problem. This has been the prevailing situation until now.

Examples abound, such as the claim that infrastructure is inadequate, and requiring substantial investment. However, there’s a lack of planning for this infrastructure, and the institutions making these decisions lack the necessary technical expertise. Consequently, they struggle to issue mandates to consulting engineering companies for designing upgrades. The drastic loss of skills in these institutions is so profound that, currently, I see no evidence that any of these water management institutions responsible for devising solutions have the capacity to self-correct.

Control of water is shifting to the private sector, period of instability predicted

Is this a doom and gloom narrative? Not necessarily, because the ruling party is in power but no longer in control. Control is shifting towards private initiatives, akin to the emergence of private initiatives in the solar panel sector to counter the ESKOM crisis. A similar trend is expected in the water sector, not driven by government policy but by sheer necessity.

Private companies are entering the scene, and I’m currently collaborating with numerous businesses to navigate the uncharted risk landscape. Companies will face a critical decision: whether the cost of mitigating the risk of water failure is too high, leading to disinvestment, or if they will take steps to enhance resilience. They must assess whether investing in resilience will adversely affect their bottom line or position them to acquire struggling companies unable to navigate the changing risk landscape.

From a commercial perspective, I anticipate a period of instability, with companies capable of addressing the water crisis taking action, while others may opt to disinvest or sell their interests. I foresee a fundamental shift in the commercial risk landscape and ownership structure of corporations in South Africa. 

Drilling boreholes not a solution, water in Johannesburg is contaminated by uranium and is acidic

Drill a borehole, that’s what many people say, and that’s what many companies have been doing and then lo and behold surprise, they find that the geology in South Africa is generally not conducive to good groundwater. Good groundwater, for example, in the city of Johannesburg, happens to be built on top of a gold-bearing reef contaminated by 120 years of mining. It contains uranium and highly acidic water. So, where you find water, it’s often highly contaminated.

Part of the work I’m doing in the commercial sector now is helping clients understand that they must not engage in a knee-jerk reaction of just trying to drill a borehole. Wherever you drill a borehole, you must also decide on the treatment needed to make that water fit for purpose. The question I ask commercial clients is, are you in the business of managing water or producing widgets? This decision is crucial because problems can be solved without necessarily finding alternative water supplies.

We will have to recycle, recapture and treat water, business opportunities in desalination for coastal cities

Ultimately, South Africa faces a difficult choice. They will have to start recycling, recapturing, and retreating water. Each unit of water will have to be used more than once. If we use every unit of water in South Africa just a little bit more than half again by 2035, we can create employment and have a thriving, investable economy. I predict that the business of recovering, capturing, and recycling water from waste will become a significant opportunity in the near future.

Another business opportunity lies in utility-scale desalination works for coastal cities from Richards Bay to Cape Town, all fundamentally water-constrained. I’ve just returned from Australia, where they have successfully implemented this model with multiple desalination plants along their coast. Going forward, we are likely to witness public-private partnerships emerging, with the state as a shareholder, but not the majority shareholder. 

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Private capital will come into play, and these partnerships will negotiate offtake agreements, similar to the energy sector, where independent water producers service contracts for municipalities unable to cope.

The key takeaway is that there’s no shortage of capital, technology, or water in the ocean. It’s a matter of bringing capital and technology together into independent service providers and raising private capital to service long-term contracts. This is the likely scenario in the next few years, and we’re starting to see it crystallising in 

Durban is doing pioneering work in treatment of waste 

Well, there have been some tentative efforts, with people dipping their toe in the water, for example, regarding desalination. Notably, in Durban, there has been pioneering work. The Durban water treatment authorities have consistently been ahead of the curve. For instance, the very first water treatment plant in South Africa that recovered water from sewage was established in Durban—the Durban South wastewater treatment works. 

Instead of discharging effluent into the sea, they collaborated with SAPREF, the oil refinery, and a large paper and pulp mill. They sell the recovered water from waste as industrial processed water to these plants. This initiative has been running for several years. I was there when Ronnie Kasrils opened it, and it originally began under Kader Asmal in the early days of ANC majority rule.

In the same area in Durban, there’s an ongoing experiment where they mix effluent from the sewage treatment plant with incoming seawater to make the seawater less saline. This alters the osmotic gradient, affecting seawater recovery costs through reverse osmosis dramatically. With this ‘remix model,’ blending wastewater recovered from sewage with seawater, the OPEX cost now ranges from 8 to 12 rand per kilolitre, aligning with international standards. The benchmark for seawater desalination is currently 35 US cents per kilolitre, per cubic meter of water.

Producing ‘new’ water is the light at the end of the tunnel 

Bulk water providers like Umgeni Waters and Rand Water are already buying water in bulk from the state at R8 to 12 a kilolitre. So, these cost lines are starting to converge. This, I believe, is the light at the end of the tunnel and undoubtedly the way forward. Looking at the market size, we need to produce 25 billion cubic metres of ‘new water’ by 2035. To put this into perspective, all the water in South Africa’s dams combined is 38 billion cubic metres.

In essence, we need to generate two-thirds of the total current storage capacity of all dams in South Africa to meet the demand for 63 to 64 billion cubic metres of water, creating full employment by 2035. While there are details still to be worked out, all the numbers are aligning, and the available technologies are capable of achieving what I’m discussing.

Groundwater aquifer storage of treated water will become significant in the future

In places like Australia, with sophisticated water management, they use technologies like aquifer storage and recovery at sewage works such as the Beenyup Wastewater Treatment Works in Perth. They recover a large volume of water from sewage, treat it to the highest standard, and instead of putting it directly back into the drinking water supply, they inject it into a groundwater aquifer. This technology stores water for up to 25 years.

This technology is likely to become significant in the future. However, it’s groundwater-based and depends on specific geological structures under the water management area. While not suitable everywhere, it fits well in certain parts of the country. You’ll start to see a convergence of technologies where groundwater contributes perhaps five or ten per cent of the total water mix. The larger portion will come from surface water—rivers and dams—and a growing portion will come from water recovered from sources like mine water or the ocean. Without a doubt.

On-site water storage in residential estates 

Well, the reality is that households actually cannot do too much. It may sound like a cop-out, but unless you can produce water in your household and are willing to become a manager of water—understanding the chemistry, physics, and health-related risks associated with storing and processing water in your backyard—it’s not a worthwhile exercise. Where households will need to take action is in storing water on-site, probably requiring around 48 hours worth of storage.

What’s happening in South Africa is a trend where households increasingly reside in gated communities or residential estates. A significant portion of the residential market in South Africa lives in these estates. The interesting aspect of residential estates is that economies of scale kick in at this level. With, let’s say, 200 units in a residential estate, and up to 800 units in a large estate, it makes sense to have on-site storage and water processing managed by the homeowners association or the body corporate.

These entities have the revenue stream to sustain these operations and can outsource management to professionals. I foresee this happening over the next decade, when residential estates will start replicating services that the failing state is unable to provide. Services such as water, energy, sewage, and waste disposal 

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