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South Africa’s nonrevenue water rising to worrying levels


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South Africa’s nonrevenue water rising to worrying levels

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25th August 2023

By: Natasha Odendaal
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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South Africa’s nonrevenue water (NRW) is rising to unsustainable levels, with nearly half the water piped through the country’s infrastructure being lost through leaks, theft or nonpayment.

However, technology can play a role in mitigating NRW, which has increased significantly since the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS’s) last ‘No Drop’ report was released in 2015.


According to the latest ‘No Drop Watch’ report, NRW increased from the 35% recorded in 2015 to 46.4% in June 2022, well above the international average of below 30%, while water losses stood at 40.7%.

This equates to 1 988.50-million cubic metres a year of overall NRW, the volume of water for which municipalities are unable to collect revenue, with recorded water losses, apparent and real, having reached 1 744.7- million cubic metres a year.


This is nearly half the preliminary 2021/22 national system input value (SIV), which is the water treated for municipal use, of 4 282.5-million cubic metres a year.

National trends show a steady increase in NRW and water losses over the past 10 years; however, the greatest increase was in the past three years, attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent increased supply, deteriorating and collapsing municipalities, reduced payment levels and budget cuts, as well as a lack of capacity in municipalities to undertake repairs.

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu says that the bulk of water losses was a result of infrastructure failure, overflows from reservoirs and other leakages from municipal distribution systems.

Further contributors were inefficiencies in the speed and quality of repairing leaks and burst pipes, as well as vandalism, the non-implementation of water efficiency solutions and unplanned human settlements resulting in unmetered water consumption.

The ‘No Drop Watch’ report outlines that the Infrastructure Leakage Index (ILI) deteriorated consistently from 2016 to 2022, peaking at 6.4, indicating poorly managed physical losses.

The high level of physical losses in municipal distribution systems is also one of the main reasons for South Africa’s relatively high level of per capita consumption of about 216 ℓ/d, which is higher than the estimated international average of 173 ℓ/d.

The ‘No Drop Watch’ report points out that the NRW of seven of South Africa’s nine provinces is above the national average.

While Gauteng accounts for the country’s highest SIV, at 1 520-million a year, and per capita water consumption, at 253 ℓ/d, as well as the highest NWR volume, its NRW percentage sits at 41.9%, lower than all provinces except the Western Cape.

In Gauteng, at least 5% of the water supplied by Rand Water to several municipal systems is lost within the water board’s system. An estimated 45% is then lost within the municipalities’ systems as NRW, of which at least 20% is the result of physical losses, such as leaks and burst pipes.

The Western Cape, with a NRW of 29.6% and a SIV of 302.94-million a year, was the best performing region in terms of lowest percentage NRW, per capita consumption and ILI.

Limpopo accounts for the highest NRW at 56.7%, followed by the Northern Cape at 56.2%, while KwaZulu-Natal recorded the highest ILI.

This emerges as many municipalities are in a downward spiral of poor and declining water services, reducing payment, increasing debt and low investment, while spending on repair, maintenance and rehabilitation of water supply systems remains inadequate.

“Damage owing to increased theft, vandalism and service delivery protests diverts funding from maintenance and expansion budgets, exacerbating the problem,” said Water and Sanitation Deputy Minister David Mahlobo during his department’s budget and policy statement presentation.

University of South Africa associate professor and water resource management research specialist Dr Anja du Plessis says that, while the DWS is the custodian of South Africa’s water resources, it is the responsibility of local municipalities to manage water at a local level, which is a cause for concern, as a recent Auditor-General South Africa (AGSA) report showed the collapse of several municipalities, with dozens more close to collapse.

The AGSA in May reported that the local government audit found that municipalities are continuously failing to address issues of accountability, integrity, performance and good governance, with only 38, or 15%, of South Africa’s 257 municipalities receiving unqualified audits with no findings.

While 33 municipalities had a better audit outcome than they did in 2020/21, 29 had a worse outcome.

“It is also clear they are underspending; so, despite having the budget to fix or address some infrastructure challenges, they are not doing that,” Du Plessis says, referring to the significant national government grants and transfers of about R62-billion municipalities receive each year for water and sanitation services. The funds are meant to deal with infrastructure backlogs and assist municipalities in providing free basic water to the indigent.

“Municipalities are using the funds for other things, so it boils down to governance issues, and governance can only happen when people are held accountable,” says South African Water Chamber cofounder Beniot Le Roy.

He suggests initiating “smart contracts” in distributed ledger technology that could enable ringfencing, in line with the Municipal Finance Management Act, with the transfer of funds between the tiers of finances before a municipality uses the funds for other responsibilities.

Further, weak billing and revenue collection at municipal level is resulting in escalating debts across the water value chain, posing a risk to the financial sustainability of the water sector, says DWS director-general Dr Sean Phillips.

Municipalities owe the water boards over R15-billion, and municipalities and the water boards, in turn, owe the DWS close to R20-billion.

“[The escalating debt] is what keeps us awake at night. Debts owed by municipalities to the water boards are escalating exponentially. The debts owed to the municipalities by consumers of water are escalating exponentially. We are starting to introduce much stronger credit control measures to try and address this,” Phillips says.

Addressing delegates at the IFAT conference, Le Roy outlined that, with about 59% of households not paying for water in South Africa, there is also a need for extreme social engineering using digital platforms.

Departmental Response

To mitigate the losses and improve the quality and reliability of water supply, the department has set in motion several initiatives, including policy and regulatory changes, and greater private-sector involvement.

To encourage private-sector participation, the DWS has established the Water Partnerships Office in conjunction with the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the South African Local Government Association, to assist municipalities in packaging bankable projects to take to the market, focusing on projects such as the reduction of NRW and water reuse.

In addition to the compliance notices and directives issued and legal action taken, in some cases against the municipalities, the DWS is supporting and intervening in many municipalities across the country to improve water and sanitation services.

There is significant scope for mitigating NRW and all municipalities would benefit from targeted demand management programmes, including community education and awareness, leak repair, infrastructure refurbishment, pressure management and installation of bulk meters, besides others.

Mchunu has agreed on improvement plans with various mayors, and the department is assisting the municipalities with grant funding to address infrastructure deficits, while the water boards are also assisting the municipalities with technical expertise and management support.

The 2023 Watch Reports indicate that legislative reforms may also be required to ensure that water service providers are professionally managed, capable, efficient and financially viable institutions.

In line with this, the DWS is in the process of strengthening its role as the regulator of water services, which includes developing more comprehensive and more stringent norms and standards for water services and standardising its regulatory processes so that they are more consistent with its regulatory actions, and is consulting water-sector stakeholders regarding such reforms.

Some of the reforms proposed include introducing an operator’s licence system for water service providers, amending Section 63 of the Water Services Act, and implementing strengthened and standardised debt collection measures for the DWS and water boards, besides others.

While the DWS is working to mitigate these water challenges, Centre for Risk Analysis policy analysis head Chris Hattingh says that government cannot fix the situation overnight – nor can it fix it at all on its own.

There is a need to get the basics right, he says, noting that it is unrealistic to expect an immediate resolution from local municipalities and national government.

“That does not mean that there cannot be a better focus on getting the basics right,” he says, highlighting the need to bring government, the private sector, communities and civil society to the table.

Technology Focus

Rand Water, which has re-established its Rand Water Services division to play a bigger role in mitigating the water sector’s challenges, is working on several technologies and solutions.

Innovations include leveraging satellite services to detect water leaks and testing, conducting a proof of concept and piloting sensors for manholes and pipelines to identify leaks at any stage to deal with them sooner, Rand Water chief shared services officer and Rand Water Services acting MD Teboho Joala tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly.

The utility is also suggesting the establishment of focused water and sanitation utilities to assume responsibility for the operation and maintenance of municipal water services, which will relieve municipalities of that burden, as they “need all the help they can get”, he says.

Speaking on the sidelines of the African Water and Sanitation Association’s ninety-first Scientific and Technical Council meeting in July, he said that it is envisaged that the utilities, independent of municipalities, would ultimately be responsible from the abstraction point to reticulation to ease the burden of maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure through a proposed special-purpose vehicle.

“We want to have autonomous, independent water utilities that can be able to bill, deal with efficiencies and manage the indigent registers and use the various subsidies from government solely for water and sanitation activities without the funds being absorbed into the whole municipal system.”

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Water Centre, which researches and develops the technology, software and tools required to improve water resources resilience, is also working on potential solutions to mitigate water losses, CSIR Water Centre manager Dr Rembu Magoba tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly.

One such technology currently being piloted at a water utility, and showing positive results, is the CSIR Water Centre’s Smart Water Network Management tool, which aims to reduce water losses and nonrevenue water that is lost through leaks, burst pipes or illegal connections.

The lack of continuous metering, network monitoring and pressure management is one of the main challenges for the water sector in managing losses.

Based on smart metering, monitoring and control, the technology, linking sensors on the distribution network to the servers and collecting data remotely and wirelessly, alerts the user, with geolocation, to any abnormalities detected within their water network and systems, enabling an immediate response.

Further, the Water Centre’s Corrective Action Request and Report System approach focuses on community-based water-services-related incidents reporting by having the citizen as a part of the water service provider, leveraging on smartphone penetration and modernisation of municipal infrastructure.

“There are a lot of technological and digital solutions that are starting to emerge,” says Zutari technical director Samista Jugwanth, referring to various smart water metering and financial technology solutions.

Du Plessis says that while digitalisation and making water “smart” is definitely on the table, it is not going to happen overnight.

“I think there are many opportunities within South Africa. We just need to structure them to see what we need to do in the short term realistically, and then go from there.”

There are several other programmes countrywide being undertaken across the public and private sectors, including a years-long partnership with the Danish Embassy in South Africa, which entered its second phase in 2021/22, a city-to-city programme in which the cities of Tshwane (South Africa) and Aarhus (Denmark) collaborate on various methods and strategies to reduce NRW in the City of Tshwane, where current water loss is estimated to be between 30% and 40%, compared with Denmark’s 5% to 7%.

The programme includes the development on a strategy enabling Tshwane to reduce its NRW, save money and potentially enable reinvestment of savings into the city’s water infrastructure.

Another project, in Limpopo, was entered into by South African Breweries, Anglo American and the Strategic Water Partners Network and the City of Polokwane to implement a Water Efficiency Leakage Reduction project.

It includes a study aimed at developing a water conservation and water demand management strategy and business plan for the City of Polokwane to help reduce water losses, unbilled and unaccounted-for water.


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