Water 3

Water in South Africa 11/25/10

Claire examines the issues affecting water supply in SA and suggests ways that you can help conserve this valuable resource.

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In recent news you may have been shocked to hear about the threat of Mine Acid Drainage and the effect this is likely to have on South Africa’s water systems. A recent report by Government indicates that the Vaal Dam is vulnerable to salinisation, which spells disaster for Gauteng. Water is South Africa is under threat from various sources and it is likely that we will feel the effects of pollution sooner than we think.

South Africa is generally known as a water-stressed country, despite its seemingly green landscapes and vast agricultural harvest. It is drought-prone, infested with alien invasive species (which tend to use a vast amount of water) and severely underdeveloped. I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but we also have a great big desert sitting to the north-west of us.

However, climatic regions in South Africa are highly variable and the utilisation of water is different too. In Gauteng, for instance, the mining sector utilises a substantial amount of water. However, agriculture is the largest consumer of water in South Africa, with an estimated 50% of fresh water used in this sector. (More on that to come in a future Veggie Buntch post.)

Currently, availability of water for domestic use is largely stable. Despite droughts in some areas, such as the Eastern and Western Cape, there are few enforced water restrictions in place. However, South Africa is an urbanising country and demand for the supply of electricity and water services is increasing. Furthermore, if we consider all the factors facing South Africa’s water systems, the supply of clean and healthy water may become threatened in the near future.

There are two issues at stake here and, unfortunately, they are connected: increasing demand for safe water in urban areas and the pollution and/or degradation of many of our water systems.

As of 2007, it was estimated that 9.7 million (20%) of the people in South Africa do not have access to adequate water supply and 16 million (33%) lack proper sanitation services. As a legacy of Apartheid, the South African government has a mandate to secure peoples’ access to these services. However, together with a trend of urbanisation, the demand for water which is suitable for drinking will continue to increase in the near future. Unfortunately, our fresh water in South Africa is further threatened by water pollution, poor sewage systems, mine acid drainage and the degradation of our water sources. This will impact severely on the ability for Government to supply clean and healthy drinking water to new and existing consumers.

What can we do?

For a domestic consumer, the question of whether we can have a positive impact on water resources is frustrated by the fact that, firstly, as a percentage of water use, we use relatively little compared to agriculture and mining. Secondly, we often feel that we have little influence over the improvement of water and sewage systems, which is generally left up to municipalities. Lastly, we feel virtually powerless to influence processes at national level.

However, it is my belief that every little bit counts. A conscious consumer will soon see ways in which they can make meaningful impacts on the sustainable consumption and management of water. Beginning at home, in a simple way, is the best way to start. After this, you may want to educate your neighbours, petition government or write letters to council. There is no end to the creative ways of influence and you will soon find support from others.

Starting at home

Water is indescribably important. It’s a crucial foundation to life and impossible to live without. That’s why it is important to manage your own supply and demand for water. Many municipalities in South Africa have implemented water and sewage By-laws as a means to manage the demand for water. Restrictions, such as when you are allowed to water your garden, do exist in some semi-arid regions. But it is about time that you invented your own rules.

Managing Supply

Managing your supply of water requires a degree of self-sustainability that few can achieve. In some areas of South Africa it is mandatory that new houses attach water tanks. They are cumbersome and expensive, however, but in times of water restrictions or when your supply of water is contaminated, you are going to glad you installed one or two. Note, however, that they are not as effective in winter rainfall areas such as Cape Town.

A somewhat new-age way of managing supply of water is to support alien invasive clearing projects. It may seem impossible at first, but there are two ways of doing this: directly by going out and clearing them, or indirectly by actively advocating for, and supporting, these initiatives. Government has implemented the Working for Water programme for this purpose, so if you would like to know more about it, check out their website.

Managing demand

There are many ways to decrease your demand for water; some simple and some complicated. Some are also prohibitively expensive and are usually carried out in cases where houses are newly built, being renovated or in cases where houses are being retrofitted (replacing old fittings). Some of the ways you can manage demand are less hands-on. For example, you can manage water use by educating your children about water saving methods and reminding people when they are wasting water. Below are some practical methods of saving water.

Simple and, therefore, easily attainable

  • Reduce your use of energy – electricity supply in SA is water-intensive
  • Only run full loads of washing
  • Change the washers on leaky taps
  • Reduce your shower time
  • Shower as often as you can
  • Wash your car and water your garden with buckets
  • Only water your garden in the early morning or late afternoon
  • Install a stop nozzle on your hose pipe
  • Do not leave the tap running while washing your hands and brushing your teeth
  • Do not wash or rinse dishes under a running tap
  • Put a cover on your pool to reduce evaporation
  • Do not buy bottled water
  • Reduce the amount of times you flush – no need to flush for the sake of a used tissue
  • Only plant water-wise or indigenous plants
  • Install a “toilet dam” (such as a covered brick or container) in your toilet to reduce the amount of water in each flush

More complicated, but still not completely out of one’s reach

  • Buy water and/or energy efficient appliances
  • Install low-flow shower heads
  • Install a dual-flush toilet system
  • Install a solar water heating device and/or solar panels
  • Install a grey-water system. These utilise all grey-water, such as water used for washing, and purify the water to the point where it can be used for garden and car washing.

I hope that everyone will take time out to do a little bit of rule making today. If you would like to learn about other ways in which you can play a part in environmental conservation in South Africa, I suggest you read Simon Gear’s book “Going Green: 365 Ways to Change our World” or download the City of Cape Town’s “Smart Living Handbook“.

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3 Responses to this article

Kobie November 25, 2010 Reply


There are other creative ways to use the water in your toilet’s reservoir. If you keep it clean the water in it is pretty hygienic.

For example: when curing olives, you need to rinse them with water twice a day for a couple of weeks. So I just put them in an old orange bag and viola, every time I flushed they got rinsed. Works better if you have lots of toilets flushing in parallel.

I wonder what else you could use that water for… washing some dirty clothing perhaps :-p Get creative!

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editor November 26, 2010 Reply

Thanks for the idea. I have heard of this olive-in-the-toilet idea before. Maybe we could throw some biodegradable washing powder in the cistern and wash out the old socks?

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Claire November 30, 2010 Reply

I like the socks idea, Ms Editor. That way you also keep your toilet clean and the sock monster at bay!
I think that the ultimate water saving device is a grey-water system. I have heard that it’s expensive and difficult to implement, which is unfortunate. All new buildings and flats should have them as mandatory fittings. They can irrigate the lawns with them and save a whole lot of clean water in the process.

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