South Africa’s Water Challenges


South Africa at a glance

south-africa-1South Africa is about twice the size of the state of Texas, with a population of ~50 million [1]. Although its average annual rainfall is half of the annual global average rainfall (492 mm vs. 985 mm) [2], it has a robust river network. In fact, if you placed South Africa’s rivers end-to-end, they would circle the earth f our times [3].

A few more facts about South Africa that are important for understanding its water challenges:

  • 60% of its population lives in urban areas [4]
  • 89% of its rivers are mountain and foothill streams — vs. meandering waterways that are easier to access for drinking water and irrigation [3]
  • 77% of South Africa’s water resources are surface water, 9% groundwater and 14% recycled water [4]
  • There are ~500 government-owned dams spread across all 9 provinces – ranging in capacity from 5.5 million down to 0.2 million cubic meters. [5]
South Africa’s water challenges

South Africa’s water challenges are in part due to natural forces beyond their control while others are due to poor water infrastructures and management.

In terms of natural stresses, the distribution of rainfall across South Africa is uneven, with the eastern half of the country being much wetter than the western half. The hot dry conditions in the western regions cause high evaporation rates, which further aggravate the problem. South Africa also tends to experience alternating periods of droughts and floods. With global warming (which is a man-made problem but not within South Africa’s control), it is expected that South Africa will experience much wetter wet seasons and much drier dry seasons, resulting in an increase in floods and droughts. [2]

In terms of man-made problems, the health of South Africa’s rivers is steadily declining due to industrial pollution and poor sanitation infrastructures. The Ecological Condition Index, which measures multiple indicators such as river flow, river bank habitat and water quality, fell from 83 in 1999 to 72 in 2011. [3]

There is also a considerable gap between ease of access to clean water in urban vs. rural areas. Due to lack of water infrastructure, 74% of all rural people are entirely dependent on groundwater (i.e., local wells and pumps) for water. [4] In 2015 ~90% of South African households had access to piped water but only half of those had access to piped water in their dwellings. [5]

Last but not least, growing urbanization is straining to their limits (and beyond) the water infrastructures of South Africa’s cities. Non-revenue water levels are very high, due both to leakage and water theft.

Water meters: an important part of the solution

South African cities that have installed water meters are better able to manage water shortages. In February 2016, for example, in response to an extended dry season, the city of Cape Town took measures to decrease water consumption by more than 100 million liters per day. Through its water meter network, it was able to identify 20,000 residents who were still excessively consuming water and was preparing to “name and shame” them into compliance. [6]

In most rural areas, however, water meters have yet to be installed. The South African constitution upholds the principle of Free Basic Water Access, by which every household is entitled to 6,000 liters per month regardless of ability to pay for it. However, the regulator responsible for water allocation cannot monitor water usage on a household basis and therefore cannot account for missing water or collect money for extra water usage. Mission 2017, an MIT project, is now working towards a nationwide installment of water meters in South Africa in order to enhance water management through better measurement. [4]

Looking to the future

zakumiSouth Africa has a great track record for facing its challenges with courage. We witnessed this tremendous energy once again during the wonderful World Cup hosted by South Africa in 2010. We are confident that it is in this spirit that it will embrace the technologies and processes necessary to effectively and sustainably manage its water resources for the benefit of all its citizens. A good example of this already happening is the multidisciplinary Future Water Institute that was established in 2015 as part of Cape Town University. Its mandate: to identify new water resources, to encourage water sensitive management, to build water resilience and to get maximum value from minimum resources. [7] All we can say is “Waka, waka – ‘cause this is Africa”!


[1] Water in Crisis – South Africa, The Water Project
[2] Water Situation in South Africa, Waterwise
[3] Four facts about our rivers you probably didn’t know, Stats South Africa
[4] Water Access in South Africa, Mission 2017
[5] Water and sanitation, South African Government
[6] James de Villiers, City of Cape Town to ‘name and shame’ high water consumers, News24, February 17, 2016
[7] Future Water Institute


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