South Africa is struggling to provide citizens with a regular, uninterrupted supply of clean, piped water, despite high-level policy certainty conferred by South Africa’s National Water act, the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan and the National Planning Commission’s National Integrated Water Security Framework.
Only around 45% of households had access to piped water in their homes in 2021, according to the South African government, with 99% households in metros having access to tap water, but rural areas massively underserved. What are the challenges, and how can the private sector get involved?
Challenges in the water sector and how to tackle them
There are many challenges facing the water sector, including water scarcity, vast inequality when it comes to delivering services, and municipal corruption or incompetence. For example, drought and municipal failures have contributed to the collapse of the water supply in Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape.
However, deteriorating and poorly managed infrastructure is a major problem, compromising water security across the country. A third of water infrastructure is not fully operational, for reasons that range from poor maintenance, a lack of skills, wastefulness, vandalism, and underinvestment in infrastructure. Loadshedding is also creating water supply issues, with power failures at stations causing water levels to drop.
Although the challenges are many, investing in infrastructure is a critical intervention, not least because of the R330 billion funding gap over the next ten years, with major infrastructure refurbishment necessary. This is a problem best solved through collaboration, since no one entity is large enough to bring about change at scale.
In 2022, Rand Water indicated it would spend R28 billion to construct 12 new reservoirs that will ensure Gauteng has enough water for residents until 2028. However, these funds will not be used to upgrade or maintain existing infrastructure. A further challenge is the fact that bulk water infrastructure is being stolen or vandalised, which compromises service delivery.
The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has established a National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA) to manage and maintain water resource infrastructure and will work with municipalities who are struggling to deliver services, as well as partner with water boards. This will work hand in hand with DWS’s Water Services Improvement Programme, which aims to strengthen intervention at municipal level.
DWS has indicated that public-private partnerships are key to unlocking opportunities in the sector and improving the skills and capacity of the public sector to help it achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.
How the private sector can participate in improving water infrastructure
Although corporate social investment in itself can’t close the water supply funding gap, it can support and strengthen municipalities to improve their water supply models. Addressing areas such as faulty meters, unmetered customers and illegal connections is the first step, followed by addressing water losses through leaks.
In 2019/20, the Rand Water Foundation partnered with two Gauteng municipalities and the DWS to plug leaks, increase municipal revenue and cut down on costs. The Foundation trained 240 local young people to detect and repair loose or burst pipes to help save water, with 4 030 households audited and 2 600 of those retrofitted.
In March 2023, Tiger Brands indicated it would invest R35 million in water infrastructure to mitigate the impact of loadshedding on municipal supply. Power cuts threatened the country’s water supply, which has an impact on the food sector value chain. Tiger Brands is also supplying select municipalities with generators and expertise to ensure continued water supply.
It has been estimated that the total cost of funding requirements for the water sector exceeds R70 billion, most of which will come from the national fiscus. However, there is an opportunity for the private sector to create value, particularly by funding maintenance and operations.
The Water Research Commission points out that there is already a sustained focus on new water-related infrastructure as this is perceived to be more profitable – however, upgrading existing infrastructure and strengthening municipalities has practical value and will help manage a vital shared resource responsibly.
Discover more about investing in water and infrastructure
- How to invest in water and sanitation
- Webinar: Corporate responsibility in ensuring equitable access to clean water and sanitation
- Appeal for companies to invest in innovative sanitation solutions through their corporate social investment initiatives
- Supporting water conservation and management in South Africa