This is a press statement by Fred Nel, the DA Shadow MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.
Some have described the recent Gauteng water crisis as a ‘perfect storm’ in order to explain the severe outages across widespread areas of Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Mogale City and Tshwane. This explanation allows those responsible for water provision in the province to distance themselves from the actual causes of the problem and thus dodge responsibility. The fact is, those same people and organisations were responsible for the outages and this they cannot escape.
The first water outage hit southern and western parts of Johannesburg, Krugersdorp and the south-western parts of Tshwane (Centurion, Laudium, Erasmia) after the Rand Water pump station at Eikenhof stopped pumping water due to an electricity outage. This electricity outage was caused by a faulty sub-station, supplying electricity to the pump station, which gave up the ghost. The logical question is ‘but was there no back-up in place?’ This is a valid question and on paper there is a back-up substation that should kick in when the primary one fails.
This did not happen because this substation had been out of service since November 2012 and nobody had bothered to fix or replace the faulty equipment. The two substations in question were also of inferior quality and could not be integrated with the grid and operate as stand-alone operations. In short, a lack of foresight and proper maintenance of the infrastructure supplying electricity to a key installation caused the failure of the equipment that led to an unprecedented water outage.
As the system was still recovering from the Eikenhof outage alleged cable theft caused an electricity outage at the Rand Water pump station situated at Palmiet. This pump station supplies water to Ekurhuleni and more specifically Germiston, Tsakane, Brakpan and Boksburg. This is an area that includes major industries.
Due to a lack of communication between Rand Water and its client, the Ekurhuleni municipality, reservoirs were allowed to run dry, something which would impact on the restoration of supply later on.
Another valid question that could be asked is: ‘Does Rand Water not have a back-up system for such eventualities?’ The company has back-up capacity for one hour in the event of electricity outages at its pump stations. Any outage lasting longer than that leads to a switching off of the pumps. Rand Water claims that it is too expensive to purchase back-up generators to provide the electricity required by its pump stations. It is thus dependent on Joburg City Power and Eskom to supply it with uninterrupted electricity to function and if such supply should be interrupted, relies on both suppliers to rectify the problem within an hour so that the pumps do not switch off.
In the event the stolen cable was replaced and the substation was fixed and Rand Water was able to resume operations at the affected pump stations. However, water pressure was not restored and the water outage continued. This was due to two categories of deficiencies relating to water demand management in the affected municipalities, specifically Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg.
The first category is technical deficiencies. In order to start functioning properly a reservoir needs to fill up to three metres, and if the water level drops below two metres the pumps start sucking in air and trip, leaving residents without water. This happened during the recent crisis because the municipalities do not possess the relevant technology to help manage water demand. In Ekurhuleni there is no telemetric system that indicates how much water is flowing into reservoirs and what the reservoir levels are. Instead, physical checks with dipsticks are used to monitor water levels.
If the relevant technology was in place alarms would have gone off at the control room when reservoirs were at critical levels and immediate action could have been taken. As mentioned earlier, reservoirs were allowed to run dry and if this had been prevented, supply could have been restored far quicker when Rand Water resumed pumping operations. However, because of the low levels of the reservoirs restoration of water pressure took forever.
This is interwoven with the second category of deficiencies namely management deficiencies. Due to a loss of technical and engineering skills in the municipalities there is very little knowledge about how to manage a crisis like this. Water reservoir outlets were left open so that as water came into the reservoirs it flowed out again immediately as, understandably, there was a great demand. So instead of allowing reservoirs to fill up to a sufficient level before resuming supply they in effect remained emptied out.
What should have happened – and what only happened towards the end of the crisis because of political pressure – was that water supply should have been diverted from full reservoirs to assist in the rebuilding of water levels in the empty reservoirs. This would have caused water outages for approximately two hours at a time in areas not affected by the main outages, but it would have helped to more rapidly restore water pressure in the affected areas.
Empty reservoirs should also have been shut off on the supply side to ensure that they filled to an acceptable level before restoring supply. This would also have speeded up the restoration of supply.
Management deficiencies were also evident in the lack of contingency planning for such an eventuality. Rand Water did not have any contingency plans in place for such major water outages and nor did the affected municipalities.
There was a total lack of communication during the crisis and insufficient arrangement of emergency water supplies. Municipalities did not have enough water tankers available as they have never been confronted with water outages on such a scale before. Many communities arranged their own emergency measures by identifying residents with boreholes to assist with supplying neighbours with water.
In order to prevent such long outages in future immediate steps should be taken to invest in the relevant technology to help manage water demand in municipalities. Electricity grids should be reconfigured to re-route electricity to key installations like pump stations in the event of cable theft or local substation outages. Training of key personnel tasked with managing water demand and such crises should be a priority. Lastly, Rand Water, Eskom, provincial and national government and municipalities should learn how to communicate properly during a crisis like this.
Those responsible for outages like these should also be held to account for their actions, or lack of actions, and not be allowed to distance themselves from blame during a crisis like this. A perfect storm of circumstances it certainly was not, but rather more of a perfect storm of inability.