Water losses are our biggest risk

16 October 2012 - 02:15 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

One of the biggest dangers of climate change is the threat to our water resources. As our water engineers constantly remind us, South Africa is a water scarce country.

The most densely populated province, Gauteng, straddles a watershed, and has to import 88% of its water, most of it from the Vaal River (with some additional transfers from the Tugela River and Lesotho).

The Water Research Commission has warned that in the absence of greater efforts at water conservation, Gauteng could run out of water by 2016.

Most municipalities are implementing strategies to conserve water more effectively. You will have noticed that your monthly water bill from the municipality has been steadily rising as the full costs of water management are passed on to the consumer. Many municipalities use a rising block tariff system, which penalises high water users, and makes users more conscious of the amount they are consuming. The rising costs are also driven by the costs of providing a basic level of free water to each household (making the subsequent amounts of water more expensive).

All of these are part of good practice in water management and they should be applauded.

But these efforts are undermined by the amount of water losses from the water system. The bulk infrastructure that carries the water from dams to treatment plants, and from there to your community and finally your home, is often old and leaking.

It's difficult to get statistics on the actual amount of water losses, but researchers have estimated that we lose between 30% and 40% of the national water supply through water losses.

While we can make all sorts of demands on water users to use water sparingly, the first place to start must surely be to stop these losses. Municipalities are fond of large capital programmes to roll out new infrastructure. I guess that repairing old infrastructure is not nearly as compelling to municipal politicians.

But there is a financial angle to this as well. New infrastructure generates revenue from future water users. Projects to stop water losses don't generate revenues, even though they make massive savings.

City finance departments don't take these savings into account when evaluating projects, and they are given a lower priority on city capital budgets.

The end result is that we are just not investing in projects to stem our water losses, when it is actually the first thing we should be doing.