Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, The Southern Africa Water Wire, Water & Sanitation

SOUTH AFRICA: Addressing Water Wastage

Patrick Burnett

CAPE TOWN, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - How do you fix a leaking pipe?

You plug it, of course, but what if there are tens of thousands of water connections all with potentially leaking taps and toilets?

To plug or replace all the faulty connections would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Ronnie McKenzie, managing director of engineering consultancy company WRP, said a flood of substandard cheap fittings had been used in houses.

This was "effectively a time bomb" because they were not designed to handle the water pressure or the heat and cold of southern African conditions.   But something has to be done. Water – a scarce resource – was literally going down the drain.

This was the problem in Sebokeng township in the Gauteng province of South Africa, home to about 420,000 people with 84,000 water connections, said McKenzie.

To fix the problem directly by retrofitting houses would have cost an estimated 21 million dollars, he said.

In this case, plugging the holes wasn't possible, but reducing the water pressure – and therefore the amount of leakage from the pipes – was.

WRP installed pressure reducing valves on the main pipe supplying water to the township, saving $4 million of water a year for the municipality, compared to the $600,000 it cost to build the pressure management system four and a half years ago.

But Geraldine Hochman, a senior policy specialist with water and sanitation NGO Mvula Trust says while municipalities do waste "quite a lot" of water and don't have proper monitoring in place to tell them were the leaks are, in the larger context of the country's water consumption the amount of water used by municipalities is negligible.

"The thing is domestic water wastage is far more visible," she said, giving the example of a tap left running for all to see in a populated urban area, compared to a farmer using water through inefficient irrigation.

Agriculture uses 64 percent of water in the Orange-Senqu river basin, a key water system for the country, while urban use, which includes both domestic and industrial consumption, accounts for 23 percent.

The water affairs department reports that 180 billion litres a year was lost to illegal water use for irrigation on the upper Vaal, part of the Orange-Senqu system.

In June, South Africa's Water Affairs Minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, highlighted concerns about major water losses in the agricultural sector.

Quoted ahead of a budget vote in Parliament, she noted the difficulty in monitoring and enforcing how much water was extracted from dams and rivers. In follow-up comments, the department said measurement of water supply and use in the agriculture sector was poor to non-existent.  

Water affairs spokesperson Linda Page maintains that efficiency improvement measures are being implemented in the agricultural sector, but argues that all sectors should be seen as equally important when it comes to minimising losses.

She said domestic sector water was more costly than water abstracted for irrigation and was also an area – along with industrial use – where demand is expected to grow, meaning that it made sense to ensure that water was used efficiently in these sectors.

An awareness kit produced for the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM), set up under the SADC Shared Watercourses Protocol to advise the four countries in the basin on water issues, notes that water conservation and demand management are "urgently required" in the region and, unless implemented, many will suffer from inadequate water resources within the next 20 to 30 years.

Ensuring an adequate supply of water would require the basin countries to resolve the problem of low popular awareness that the region's resources were finite. In addition, inappropriate tariff structures, poor cost recovery, and problems of getting payment for water supplies would need to be solved, says the kit.

But some, like water specialist Dr Anthony Turton, argue that a "big priority" should be the theft of water stolen by farmers who have no abstraction permits, which causes a reduction in the assurance of supply to electricity giant Eskom and petro-chemicals company Sasol.

"South Africa has the most progressive water law in the world. What is lacking is enforcement. The simple answer therefore is to enforce the law that already exists."

Hochman believes that technical solutions – such as pre-paid meters – need to consider social components and that the public need to be informed about the measures taken to address demand issues.

Meanwhile, Hameda Deedat, a steering committee member of the South African Water Caucus, a civil society grouping, said innovation had a role to play in addressing wastage. She questions why, for example, rainwater harvesting is not used in Cape Town through the installation of water tanks in residential households.

"There are sustainable ways to address the issue," she said.

*This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Orange-Senqu River Basin.

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