South Africa’s water crisis: Off-grid solutions for homeowners

As South Africa grapples with worsening water shortages and infrastructure challenges, homeowners seek alternatives to municipal supply. From water storage tanks with pumps to rainwater harvesting and boreholes, off-grid options vary in cost and feasibility. With prices ranging from R2,000 to over R90,000, households weigh their choices amid rising concerns over water quality and reliability. Explore the options and costs of backup water systems in the face of mounting supply uncertainties.

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By Myles Illidge

South African homeowners looking to ditch their municipal water supply have three main alternatives — water storage tanks and a pump, rainwater harvesting, and a borehole.

Pricing for these off-grid water systems varies based on a household’s water usage and requirements. Prices can range from R2,000 to over R90,000, depending on the system you choose.

Many South African homeowners are likely considering a backup or off-grid water supply as the number of municipalities facing frequent water shortages and questionable water quality is rising rapidly.

Outside of Cape Town’s “Day Zero” scare in 2017 and 2018, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal residents seem to face the country’s most frequent water shortages.

Several factors have contributed to the situation in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

These include inadequate planning and management, underinvestment in infrastructure, vandalism, corruption, demand increases, and unreliable power supply.

The Department of Water and Sanitation published its 2023 “No Drop” report in November 2023, highlighting concerns over the country’s water supply.

“Water demand is expected to sharply increase over the next 20 years while the water supply is likely to decline, therefore anticipating a projected supply deficit of 17% by 2030,” it wrote in the report.

In mid-March 2024, Rand Water warned three central Gauteng municipalities — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni — that the system was on the verge of collapse.

“Rand Water systems are under severe pressure,” the City of Tshwane said in a statement.

“The entire water supply system, which we share, is under strain.”

Johannesburg Water Management blamed the issues on leaks and theft.

Anthony Turton, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at South Africa’s University of the Free State, described the system as one that is set to “self-destruct”.

In KwaZulu-Natal, residents in areas including Phoenix, Umhlanga, Tongaat, Verulam, Umdloti, and Durban are without water on almost a daily basis, with outages lasting days, weeks, months, and even years in some scenarios.

The situation is only expected to worsen, making an off-grid water system attractive to many of the country’s residents.

We compare backup and off-grid water system options below.

Water (JoJo) tanks and a pump — R7,000 to R50,000+

These kinds of systems are often the most affordable and viable for most South African households. However, it isn’t genuinely off-grid, requiring a municipal water supply to fill the tanks.

This ensures the tanks are at least somewhat full when a municipal water outage occurs.

These tanks — nicknamed for well-known manufacturer Jojo — come in all shapes and sizes and can be installed above or below ground.

For example, small 260-litre Jojo tanks go for around R1,000. However, 260 litres likely won’t suffice for most South African households.

Typical South African households can get by on approximately 2,000 litres for one week, and these tanks will cost you between R2,000 and R3,000.

Jojo sells tanks with capacities of up to 20,000 litres, which cost upwards of R50,000.

While these systems won’t tackle water quality concerns, homeowners can add filters to the system to ensure they have potable water.

Jojo’s whole-house filters cost upwards of R2,500. You will also require a pump to transport the water from the tank to your taps. These are typically priced anywhere from R1,900 to R7,000.

Rainwater harvesting — R15,000 to R35,000

Rainwater harvesting can also be a cost-effective means of securing an off-grid water supply. However, it is only ideal for households in areas with moderate to high levels of rainfall.

This can be done via the household’s gutters, which can be used to direct rainwater into a water storage vessel such as a Jojo tank.

For the system to work, homeowners must install plumbing pipes, mosquito screens, flush diverters, and leaf filters to ensure the collected water is safe.

It should be noted that even with these components, water harvested from rainfall isn’t ideal for human consumption but can be used for other purposes like irrigation, flushing toilets, and cleaning dishes.

According to Use-Rainwater.com, a basic water harvesting system will cost South African homeowners between R15,000 and R35,000.

Once set up, there are no additional costs unless you add a filtration system, which will require the filters to be replaced periodically.

However, some effort is still required on the homeowner’s part, as they must regularly clear their roof to ensure it is clear of branches and bird or mouse droppings.

Borehole

Drilling a borehole can be a risky exercise as the availability of underground water depends greatly on where your home is located.

These systems tap into natural underground water reservoirs that can supply water to households.

The Borehole Water Association of South Africa estimates the cost of drilling a borehole to be between R600 and R900 per metre.

Considering underground reservoirs in the country are typically between 30 and 100 metres deep, the drilling costs range between R18,000 and over R90,000.

Other costs include labour, casing, piping, a pump, pumping tests, and water quality testing.

If you’re lucky, you could secure a water supply for your household for as little as R20,000.

However, the costs will likely be higher, and there is the added risk that you won’t find groundwater when drilling, making it a costly and wasteful exercise.

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This article was first published by MyBroadband and is republished with permission

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