South Africa’s deepening water crisis appears to be firmly on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s mind. Recently, in an open letter published in the media, he painted a grim picture of the country’s threatening water woes.

“Our existing water systems are already over-exploited as usage increases rapidly due to population growth and as more homes get connected to water. Combine this with the worsening effects of climate change and we are clearly facing a dire situation.

“Unless we take drastic measures to conserve water sources and promote efficient use, water insecurity will become the biggest developmental and economic challenge facing this country. Our current energy challenges will seem small by comparison. Unless we act now, we may not have water anywhere,” he said.

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced a few days later that South Africa intended to spend R900 billion over the next decade to improve its water-supply and storage infrastructure and tackle a growing shortage of the resource.

She also announced that a separate unit would be established to finance, manage and operate the national water infrastructure, while projects that were currently in the works would be expedited.

Commenting on the latest developments, the Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (SAPPMA) said it was relieved that the government had recognised the seriousness of the problem and was making resources available. However, in a statement the association pointed out that the impact of the water woes could have could have been reduced – if not completely avoided.

SAPPMA’s CEO, Jan Venter said that while drought and climate change might have aggravated the problem, a major cause was the country’s failure to upgrade and maintain its water pipes and infrastructure over the past decade.

“Much of the country’s water infrastructure consists of old steel and asbestos-cement water pipes that were installed in the early 1960s or earlier. These pipes have a limited lifespan of no more than 50 years before they start to corrode, spring leaks and need to be replaced,” he said.

According to Venter, in South Africa and the rest of the world, plastic pipes are the material of choice to replace ageing pipes and infrastructure as they do not corrode or perish, and the joints are leak proof if installed correctly.

“They are available in various diameters and wall thicknesses, offer a much longer lifespan, are cheaper and more efficient to install and offer significant savings to municipalities, thanks to their offering less friction, which results in lower pumping costs, less maintenance and fewer interruptions,” he said.

“Our members’ dwindling sales figures over the last few years show that no orders were being placed for new pipes, despite the fact that municipal budgets were allocated for upgrades and maintenance.”

However, he said by far the biggest water wastage occurred in municipalities that did not repair leaks, or failed to maintain water pipelines. “The Water Research Council recently conducted a survey of 132 municipalities in South Africa, which revealed that close to 40 percent of the country’s potable water was being lost as a result of leaks, incorrect metering and unauthorised consumption. By comparison, Australia (also classified as a water-scarce country) loses less than 10 percent per year,” he said.

“The two main causes of water loss are corrosion and the poor joining of pipes. Not only does South Africa suffer financial losses of more than R7,2 billion a year, but we have lost a significant supply of water that we might never be able to replace.

“Despite the good rains that have fallen recently in large parts of our country, we can still run out of water if we do not protect and look after what we have. Government must realise the seriousness of the situation and plan for the generations to come,” he concluded.

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