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The Dams are mostly full

Are our water worries over?

By Dr Anthony Turton

, |

The Dams are mostly full

Are our water worries over?

By Dr Anthony Turton

, |

4 min read

With the nationwide rainfall that we have enjoyed, some courtesy of Tropical Storm Eloise, most of our large dams are now full. The media is reporting that our water worries are over, at least for the time being. But is this the case, or is this just a blip in a general downward trend? As with many things, to predict the future, we need to look at the past.

How we got to where we are

South Africa has a water-constrained economy. The fact that we even became an industrialised nation, given our hydrological constraints, attests to our capacity for ingenuity. We turned a hydrologically challenged environment into a vibrant manufacturing economy in a relatively short period of time. This journey really began with the Commission of Inquiry into Water Matters that was constituted in the first decade of our independence from Britain in 1961. Before that we were essentially an agricultural economy with some mining, most notably in the Witwatersrand Goldfields, but with only a rudimentary manufacturing capacity.

The grand vision of the Commission of Inquiry into Water Matters was to transform this agricultural and extractive economy into an industrialised beneficiation economy, in which the value-add of converting primary raw materials into finished products could create many jobs in a diversified commercial ecosystem. To achieve this, we needed technical capacity on an unprecedented scale, working in a highly coordinated way, to literally perform hydraulic miracles by making water flow uphill to power and money. The single objective of the National Hydraulic Mission in the 1960s was the creation of water security in a country that is, in essence, hydrologically insecure.

This National Hydraulic Mission developed a concept that was first mooted by Thomas Bain a century earlier. In essence, localised water security at municipal level was created by linking one river to another in a cascade of transfers. South Africa rapidly became one of the world leaders in what is known as inter-basin transfers (IBT), to the extent that the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s increasingly became dependent on this practice.

If we look at the capital investment into hydraulic infrastructure, we can see this play out over time. In a study conducted by the then Department of Water Affairs in 2008, a stark reality was revealed. The investment into hard infrastructure peaked in the 1980s, and then rapidly tapered off as the transition to democracy saw the emergence of new priorities, most notably transformation. This is reflected in the age of water infrastructure shown here.

The remaining useful life of our water infrastructure

The implication of rapid decline of expenditure in infrastructure since the 1980s is best understood by looking at a different set of data related to the remaining useful life (RUL) of water infrastructure. It must be remembered that this study was conducted in 2008, so assets listed with a 20-year RUL back then now have less than half that value.

In effect then, this means that most of our water infrastructure has a remaining useful life of 20 years at best, but much of the major infrastructure is approaching, or has already reached, the end of its design life.

This is particularly evident in the data from the 2008 study in the map to the right, which shows that the utilisation of that infrastructure is mostly at the point of reaching design capacity. It must be noted that the time lag from conceptualisation of a project, through design and ultimately implementation, is typically 20 years. This means that, even if we suddenly decide to invest in many new projects – assuming we have the capital available – that benefit will accrue two decades into the future at best, by which time the RUL for the majority of infrastructure will have expired.

The future does not look rosy

These three sets of data give us a pessimistic picture of the water sector, with three specific points of concern.

  • The biggest issue is the lack of investment into infrastructure for the last 30 years, but there is nothing we can do about that now. Except, perhaps, cry.
  • The second biggest issue is the rapidly declining RUL value of our water infrastructure. This is a serious problem that has been exacerbated by the purging of strategic skills from the water sector, driven as it was by the political priority of transformation and cadre deployment. The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is no longer capable of performing even the most basic of tasks – the Blue and Green Drop reporting systems and the regular National Water Resource Strategy reconciliations mandated by the National Water Act – let alone plan and design complex infrastructure. We are therefore left vulnerable and unable to maintain the level of water security needed to sustain a modern industrial economy. This is a barrier to the inflow of capital and is unable to translate into job creation and taxes from a host of transactions in a diversified economy.
  • The third major issue is the collapse of revenues to the fiscus, driven by the overall loss of investor confidence as described above, but exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. This means that government is no longer able to make the investments necessary to restore water security in an industrial economy competing in a global market.

So the answer to the question posed in the introduction is that, while we have many dams now overflowing, we are increasingly water insecure simply by virtue of the cumulative impact of under-investment into infrastructure, combined with the loss of skills, but exacerbated by the diversion of revenues needed to sustain a system of patronage. So, enjoy it while it lasts, but expect more water restrictions in the future, and – more importantly – plan for some sense of personal, estate or development water security, even it’s just a JoJo tank.

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