Panic Over Water In South Africa’s Economic Hub Is Misplaced

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By Mike Muller

It has been a hot, dry October in much of the interior of South Africa. And the rains have started later than usual. So it was not surprising that alarm bells went off when it was announced that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project tunnel system, which supplies water to some of South Africa’s biggest cities, would be closed for maintenance for two months.

These fears were inflamed by appeals by local authorities in Gauteng province, the country’s economic hub, to use water sparingly. Residents had already seen the recent example of Cape Town’s water crisis.

Gauteng and the surrounding region gets its water from the 14 interconnected dams of the Integrated Vaal River System. Some of these are in Lesotho, South Africa’s mountainous neighbour.

The Lesotho dams provide over 25% of the water supplied by the Integrated Vaal River System. So a permanent loss of supply from Lesotho would indeed cause shortages for millions of South Africans. But this long-planned maintenance merely stores the water in Lesotho’s dams for a few months, to be released later. There are far greater risks emerging in the Integrated Vaal River System that need to be addressed.

Despite the current heat wave, there is in fact no danger of an immediate water shortage in the Gauteng cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Specialists concluded very recently that no water use restrictions would be required in the Vaal River System this summer. This followed a detailed review of the state of the dams in the system mapped against possible future rainfall patterns and current consumption levels.

But there are issues that residents of Gauteng and surrounding areas should be concerned about. Specifically, are the authorities responsible for managing water supplies keeping their eye on the ball? And are they ensuring that plans to protect the province from shortages over the next six years will be implemented on time?

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