Water shortage South Africa’s climate challenge

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 2 2014. You can read the Swedish version here.

Water shortage will become South Africa’s major climate challenge. In the townships it is already a common problem. Leaking pipes gives exorbitant bills and for indebted households access to water is cut.

Water shortage is already a climate issue in townships like Kayelitsha in South Africa. Photo Mats Hellmark

Driving along the seaside road eastwards from Cape Town we see a landscape of corrugated roofs, television antennas and poles with tangled power lines spread inland. Kayelitsha is one of South Africa ‘s large townships, perhaps the largest. It is difficult to calculate the population of suburbs that grow uncontrollably, but a few years old official figures estimated the population to be over 400,000.

Within Kayelitsha the housing ranges from middle class type small terraced house in the old parts to informal slum shacks on the outer edges. The district Makhaza lies somewhere in between the extremes. Here the SSNC partner organization EMG (Environmental Monitoring Group) is working with water problems at the local level in partnership with a women’s group that started out as a network for backyard farming.

A meeting is taking place in the assembly hall which is located next to the small wetland the project has restored: from highly polluted security risk to a park-like resource for biodiversity, recreation, and water. We plunge straight into heated discussions in Xhosa, a local language with many clicks. Most people who live in Kayelitsha belong to the ethnic group Xhosa and have their roots in the countryside east of Cape town. They talk about farming with compost, leaking pipes and the current situation in the ongoing dialogue with local water authorities.

One of the younger women, Khunjulwa Mtyhida, invites us to visit her little house. The toilet is outside in the front yard and when she opens the door, the floor is partially covered by water.

– There are always leaks. The wires are bad and I can not afford a plumber, she says.

She has no idea of how much water disappears down into the sewers every day. But the bills indicate an excessive consumption for a household of two persons. She and her husband have never been able to pay the debt, which was already high when they moved in 2003 (it came with the house). The latest bill lies unopened on the kitchen table. When she opens the envelope, the sum amounts to 53,889 rand (more than 31 000 SEK).

– It is not uncommon with unpaid bills of 200 000 rand, sums households where many are unemployed can never repay, says Taryn Pereira, who is working with water issues in EMG .

To completely turn off the water would create chaos. The authorities’ approach towards indebted households has instead been to fix the leaks and install so-called Water Managing Devices (WMD): meters that limit the asset to the free minimum allocation of 350 liters per day. Since the leaks often return the water access may be cut off from early in the day, especially in larger households.

Those who are without water may have to walk for miles to public faucets and chemical toilets found in the more informal parts of Kayelitsha. Others go out into the bush to defecate, something that is both unhygienic and poses a risk to women, who may be subjected to rapes.

– Our goal has been to get the authoritities to fix the leaks and reduce the bills without forcing the households to install WMDs. It has been a long battle. The officials are mostly engineers who are not so good at ”soft” social issues, instead they prefer technical solutions. But now we are approaching an agreement. We want the authorities to train local people who can fix the pipes. The pipes are so bad that they will require continued maintenance.

The water problems are partly inherited from the apartheid system. The houses and the infrastructure was built for black workers and as a consequence held low standard. Not paying water bills was a way to protest against oppression, but the accumulated debts followed suit into the new South Africa.

– The culture of not paying is becoming outdated, many people I talk to want to get rid of their debts now. But so far local authorities have not been very accommodating, says Taryn .

Khunjulwas neighbour and fellow fighter in the backyard network, Victoria Taho, 81 has managed to get rid of her debts.

– The water is very expensive, but my last bill was not higher than 90 rand , she says as she proudly displays her crops: lush spinach and carrots behind the house.

Age is no obstacle, as long as you are systematic, prepare the soil well and water the plants with rain water, she says.

ACCORDING TO A REPORT from the South African Water Research Commission from 2012 more than a third of the country’s fresh water is lost before it reaches its destination, mostly because of the leaks. For a country that already counts among the 30 driest in the world this is a serious flaw.

– All climate scientists and policymakers agree that water will become South Africa’s biggest problems associated with climate change. Dry periods will increase and it will be a challenge to balance demand, says Taryn Pereira.

A first hint of the future problems was felt in 2009 when the south coast was hit by the worst drought in recorded history. Since measures to conserve water and improve the efficiency had not been a priority the situation turned critical in many places.

– With state emergency money a number of large and expensive plant for seawater desalination were built. They consume a lot of energy when they run and thus contribute to climate change. The water they produce is too expensive and creates pollutants that harm the marine environment, says Pereira.

In Cape Town, the authorities want to raise the price of water, and additionally differentiate the tariff so that large consumers will pay a lower price per unit. In a country where status is displayed with pools and multiple bathrooms the idea that the rich should pay less for their water than those who only have a tap in the yard available, is a provocation.

– We think it is reasonable that people pay for water, if it is completely free the waste may increase. However, the levels should be fair and not the highest for the poorest, says Taryn Pereira.

Text and photo Mats Hellmark


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