Water Interruptions in Gauteng

In October 2022, water security in Gauteng made headlines as Rand Water, the region’s bulk water provider, imposed level 2 water restrictions to deal with an excess of demand over what it was able to supply to municipal reservoirs. Many communities were affected by empty pipes and taps over several weeks. The reasons for these water cuts are complex and will be explored more holistically in an upcoming GCRO output. This Map of the Month explores the issue of water supply reliability at a household level which does provide an indicator of water leaks (although as we show it is not an easy issue to isolate). Quality of Life Survey data produced by the GCRO shows unreliable water supply has afflicted the province for some time. The GCRO’s November 2022 map of the month examines water interruptions in Gauteng using data from its Quality of Life (QoL) 6 Survey, collected between October 2020 and May 2021. The data – on how frequently survey respondents experience water interruptions – is compared to that from earlier QoL surveys. The results show that the percentage of residents across the province who reported frequent water interruptions increased between the 2017/18 and 2020/21 surveys. Frequent water interruptions are more likely to affect respondents with relatively lower incomes, and the challenge is particularly concentrated in low income communities such as Stinkwater, Etwatwa, Evaton, Sebokeng, Orange Farm/Stretford, Thembalihle, Vlakfontein and Lehai.

Hamer et al., (2018) differentiate between second-order scarcity events caused by inadequate infrastructure and first-order scarcity events caused by droughts. The predominant cause of water interruptions at a household level in Gauteng is inadequate or poorly maintained water infrastructure within municipalities (Ledwaba 2022). In particular there is inadequate maintenance of ageing infrastructure (Mafata, 2021), and infrastructure is being damaged through vandalism and theft. Also, existing infrastructure is having to cater to large and growing populations due to rapid population growth and densification. Together a lack of maintenance of infrastructure and rapidly densifying settlements can cause pipe bursts and water leakages, resulting in water interruptions. In Johannesburg, for example, ‘non-revenue water’ is at 39.39% (Johannesburg Water, 2020/21), meaning that over a third of all the water that has been pumped into the city is lost through leaks (physical losses) or is used but not paid for (economic losses) (Smith, 2021). Some 18% of the 39.39% of the water that is distributed into Johannesburg’s water reticulation systems is physically lost due to leakages. In other municipalities, some water interruptions may result from restrictions imposed by water suppliers on municipalities who are not keeping up with their bulk service payments.

A comparison of the Quality of Life Survey V (2017/18) and the most recent Quality of Life 6 Survey (2020/21), shows in fact that the reliability of water supply improved in a number of municipalities (Figure 1). Ekurhuleni, Emfuleni, Lesedi, Midvaal and Rand West all show declines in frequent water interruptions (defined here as water interruptions at least once a month or more frequently, namely a couple of times a month or even every week). However, notwithstanding some improvement, Emfuleni remains the worst performing municipality in the province with respect to frequent water interruptions (see also the discussion on causes below).

While some municipalities have improved between 2017/18 and 2020/21, other municipalities have deteriorated, with the effect that the province’s overall average of respondents who experienced frequent water interruptions has increased. Whereas 30% of Gauteng’s residents reported frequent water interruptions in 2017/18, that percentage increased to 33% reporting frequent interruptions in 2020/21. The City of Johannesburg shows a staggering 10 percentage point increase in frequent water interruptions between the 2017/18 survey and 2020/21, followed by the City of Tshwane with a 5 percentage point increase in frequent water interruptions.

Figure 1: Change in percentage with water interruptions at least once a month between 2017/18 and 2020/21, by municipality. (weighted data)

Poorer households are more likely to have frequent water interruptions than wealthier households. Figure 2 highlights the experiences of water interruptions in relation to household incomes categories. This supports previous evidence that interrupted water delivery closely follows the historical and current fault lines of South African society, with low income residents disproportionately bearing the burden of supply problems (Hamer et al., 2018).

Figure 2: Experienced water interruptions by household income (weighted data). This chart is interactive, switch the different income categories on/off to see how different income groups compare.

The charts show broad trends of water interruptions, but there is value in showing the spatial trends for the most frequent water interruptions. Figure 3 maps at a ward level the percentage of respondents who stated that they experienced water interruptions every week or a few times a month. Darker shading means that a higher percentage of residents reported experiencing frequent water cuts. In the worst affected wards, a very high proportion (more than 60%) of respondents reported that they had regular disruptions to water supply. This includes areas of Stinkwater, Etwatwa, Evaton, Sebokeng and Orange Farm/Stretford. These areas include high density informal settlements and townships that have gone through densification and where water infrastructure is inadequate for the number of people who live there. These areas are also lower income households with less disposable incomes to shield themselves from regular water cuts.

Figure 3: Percentage reporting frequent water interruptions (every week, a couple of times a month) (unweighted data). You can explore this interactive map to see how wards compare, zoom in or out and hover your mouse over wards to see detailed results.

High percentages of residents reporting frequent water interruptions in their area indicate that there are long-standing problems in those areas. In Emfuleni, the situation is exacerbated by the municipality’s R1.3 billion debt with Rand Water (McCain, 2022) which results in water being cut or throttled by Rand Water for non-payment, as well as long-standing issues with water infrastructure. Rand Water imposes water supply reductions as a credit control measure for non-payment (Emfuleni Local Municipality, 2020) and this has a domino effect on places such as Risiville and Midvaal that rely on the Vanderbijlpark reservoir in Emfuleni for their water supply (News24 Wire, 2021). Water interruptions in Emfuleni are caused by a lack of management in water demand and supply and this has resulted in inadequate water infrastructure maintenance, service delivery backlogs, poor communal water practices, poor revenue collection, limited cost recovery, and the inability of municipalities to implement a successful billing system (Wegelin et al., 2009). So it is unsurprising to see respondents in Emfuleni reporting a high frequency of water interruptions. In recent years there have been a number of interventions within Emfuleni to improve water services and this may have contributed to the four percentage point improvement in water interruptions shown in Figure 1. In 2018, Rand Water and Emfuleni negotiated a debt settlement plan and much-needed engineering support was brought into the Municipality to fix infrastructure problems. By 2020, Emfuleni was paying their bulk water bill more consistently and had successfully encouraged residents to use their water more sparingly.

Communities and households have found ways to shield themselves from the impacts, for example by using rainwater harvesting in summer to buffer or supplement municipal water supply. In Melville and Auckland Park areas (the dark-shaded areas west of the Johannesburg CBD), where 18.1 - 31.7% of residents experienced frequent water interruptions according to Figure 3, some residents have relied on the borehole available in their local mosque for water supply (Tshabalala, 2022). In poorer areas, like Mamelodi Riverside, residents collect surface water from rivers and streams (Fuller, 2006). It should be noted that the use of river water for household water use is not desirable as the water quality is often poor and unsuitable for human consumption. In areas such as Hammanskraal, residents are forced to buy more expensive water from supermarkets, incurring a significant financial burden (Ngam, 2021). Enterprising individuals in some communities have created businesses selling water in containers.

Water interruptions have domestic, economic, and institutional repercussions. At a domestic level, residents have, at times, been unable to obtain water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Residents also complained of the inability to exercise proper health and hygiene practices including bathing and flushing toilets; and this is worsened by the failure of the relevant municipalities to supply water tanks and communicate effectively (Gifford, 2022; Ndaba, 2022). Consequently, this leads to additional expenses in order to obtain water from other sources, including costs such as fuel, time and bottled water purchases. Additionally, the employment and economic decline during the COVID-19 pandemic means that households are increasingly struggling to pay municipal bills. This throws into doubt the municipality's capacity to sustain water services to these communities (Water Institute of South Africa, 2020).

The costs to households for unreliable water access extend beyond financial costs. The interruptions create knock-on effects on the ability of employees to properly perform at work. In Emfuleni a young woman noted that “It means one should wake up early or be late for work” due to low water pressure which increased the time taken for preparing food and bathing (Manyane, 2021). A carwash owner with six employees in Emfuleni says “At times I have to turn away customers because there is no water” (Khumalo, 2018). Sectors such as agriculture, energy, and manufacturing are hindered, as are development projects for roads and construction. Unreliable water supply has also made banks more hesitant to support this sector financially (Pretorius & van Rooy, 2020). At an institutional level, facilities such as education and health care cannot operate to their full capacity (Du Preez, 2021; Mafata, 2021).

Municipalities understand the importance of this issue, and they have repeatedly committed themselves to upgrading, maintaining and managing reservoirs, wastewater treatment plants, and overall supply (e.g. Sioga, 2020; Staff Writer, 2022). As the findings in this article have shown, frequent water supply interruptions are particularly acute in some parts of Gauteng, and are affecting those with lower incomes. Resolving these issues would have an enormous benefit for the quality of life of residents in the province.

Note on the method:

Respondents were asked the question, “In the past 12 months, how often, if ever, did you experience water interruptions?” and responded to categories of “every week”, “a couple of times a month”, “once a month”, “a couple of times a year”, and “never”. For the analysis of the November Map of the Month, only respondents who experienced water interruptions “every week” and “a couple of times a month” were recorded and mapped at a ward level. The map used unweighted data at a ward level, and Figures 1 and 2 used weighted data.


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Edits and input:

Richard Ballard, Graeme Götz, Laven Naidoo.

Suggested citation:

Petersen, C., Dlamini, L. and Maree, G. (2022). Water Interruptions in Gauteng. Map of the Month. Gauteng City-Region Observatory. November 2022. https://doi.org/10.36634/EEUU8751.


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