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Water crisis in South Africa

Water crisis in South Africa

Johannesburg and its surrounds, at the centre of the industrial heartland of South Africa, have been hit by severe water cuts. Water interruptions have been happening for years, but they have been scaled up dramatically in recent weeks. The deteriorating situation recently forced the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, to intervene. On 27 September he announced a new initiative water-shifting. The proposal has echoes of “load-shedding”, the term used for the planned power outages which have become a common feature of life for all South Africans. Anja du Plessis, a water management expert, explains the new water initiative.

Johannesburg Water says its systems are pumping water at full capacity and it hopes that their network will improve drastically overnight when demand lessens. A power outage at the Eikenhof station has left parts of Johannesburg such as Soweto, Randburg and other suburbs in high-lying areas without water for four days. Joburg Water says they continue to prioritise hospitals and clinics. For more on this, we are joined by Prof Anthony Turton, who is a water expert in the Centre for Environmental Management, at the University of Free State.

Both the deteriorating water infrastructure and the continually growing population have intensified the water crisis in South Africa, compelling its residents to adopt stringent practices. Official directives mandating substantial reductions in water usage have resulted in overcrowded communal water taps, perilous bore-holing, and the reluctant reliance on contaminated groundwater sources—all aimed at combating a drought that has persisted in the South African region for over seven years. Despite the availability of local crisis response groups to assist residents, the limited availability of clean freshwater sources poses a significant challenge in resolving the water crisis in South Africa.

In anticipation of a potential “day zero” (the day municipal taps cease to function), Gift of the Givers, a non-governmental South African disaster relief organization, has undertaken the drilling of boreholes near public facilities such as hospitals and schools to tap into water reservoirs deep beneath the South African terrain. The boreholes have proven to be a genuine lifeline for the locals who rely on them. Nevertheless, some experts express concerns that the benefits derived from these boreholes may be outweighed by potential drawbacks.

“What is not being disclosed [to citizens] is that due to the geological characteristics of the coastal zone, the [fresh]water being extracted might be replaced by saline water intrusion originating from the sea through certain fissures in the rocks,” cautioned Phumelele Gama, head of the botany department at Nelson Mandela University, in an interview with Mongabay. Gama emphasizes that these saline water intrusions could eventually render the borehole water reservoirs completely undrinkable within as little as six months after “day zero.”

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