Understanding water issues and challenges IV: Water infrastructure assessment

The condition of water resource and supply infrastructure influences government’s ability to perform the functions prescribed by the National Water Act and the Water Services Act. This brief discusses the expert assessment of water infrastructure in South Africa and highlights key challenges to effectively managing it.


Given the fact that South Africa’s primary water sources are unevenly distributed, with only 8% of the land surface area covering South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland providing more than half of South Africa’s water supply,[1] it has had to develop a sophisticated bulk transfer operation to augment supply to water-scarce areas. In addition, most of the country’s major economic and social hubs are located in areas where water does not naturally flow in abundance. Population growth and water scarcity, which is particularly strenuous during times of drought, places increased strain on water resource and water supply infrastructure.

Despite the key role public infrastructure plays in achieving increased levels of economic growth and social upliftment, the condition of water and sanitation infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

The condition of South Africa’s water infrastructure

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) launched its third Infrastructure Report Card in 2017,[2] reflecting an expert assessment of the current condition of South Africa’s public infrastructure. The assessment evaluates the condition of water, sanitation, solid waste, road, port, airport rail, electricity, health care and education infrastructure. Overall, South Africa’s public infrastructure is at risk of failure – largely attributed to governance that continually neglects maintenance and facilitates poor engineering capacity within the public sector.

Water resource, water supply and sanitation infrastructure generally follow the national trend of being at risk. Bulk water resource infrastructure is not coping with the increased demand and is poorly maintained – making it at risk of failure. And while water supply infrastructure in major urban areas is satisfactory for now, SAICE warns that it will need medium-term investment to avoid serious deficiencies. Supply infrastructure in areas other than major urban settlements, however, continues to be at risk.

When looking at the state of sanitation infrastructure, including wastewater treatment, there is stark difference between infrastructure in major urban areas when compared to all other areas. While South Africa’s major urban areas enjoy relatively satisfactory sanitation infrastructure, SAICE has graded sanitation infrastructure in all other areas to be unfit for purpose. Essentially, therefore, sanitation infrastructure in those areas has already failed or is on the verge of failure, potentially exposing the public to serious health and safety hazards. Sanitation infrastructure in these areas requires immediate action. While distressing, the Report’s assessment of sanitation is not surprising. One need not look further than the recent deaths of school children in latrines to know the devastating condition of sanitation infrastructure in smaller, less urbanised settings.

Challenges contributing to deteriorating infrastructure

Deteriorating infrastructure as a result of ageing and poor maintenance has been one of government’s biggest challenges. South Africa’s approach to water infrastructure maintenance seems largely to be reactionary as opposed to preventive, raising its costs of repair unnecessarily and reducing the functional life span of infrastructure. Strategically, South Africa has committed to not approving or developing new water resource infrastructure unless effective water conservation and water demand management interventions have been implemented in the area.[3] With recessionary pressures and increased strain on the national fiscus, proper asset management practices, through infrastructure maintenance for example, have become even more crucial.

Non-revenue water, which represents the water lost through leaks and commercial losses, accounts for over a third of water loss and serves as a persuasive indicator of the state of water infrastructure. Often, lack of engineering capacity, particularly at municipal level where infrastructure is most frequently operated and maintained, contributes to the mismanagement of water infrastructure and the inability to effectively maintain it.

New infrastructure, in various stages of progress, is underway to help alleviate the stress on current water structures. Generally though, these projects are facing serious delays. Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a core project to ensure Gauteng’s water security, has been delayed by at least five years due to procurement issues. Phase III of the Nooitgedacht Low Level Scheme, which treats water from the Gariep Dam feeding into systems that supply crucial areas including the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality, has been delayed as a result of budgetary constraints. Most recently, the Giyani Bulk Water Project, launched in 2014 by former President Jacob Zuma to provide 55 villages in Limpopo with clean drinking water, has been delayed and work suspended amid tender irregularities and non-payment by the Department. Government’s failure to implement the project ballooned the cost to over R3 billion and has still left residents of Giyani without water four years after the project launch.

Symptoms of a larger governance problem

Government has developed plans and strategies that focus on improving infrastructure across the board. The Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) was established to ensure systematic and integrated planning and monitoring of large infrastructure projects. The National Infrastructure Plan, developed in 2012, also identified 18 strategic integrated projects (SIPs) to support economic development and address service delivery in poorer communities across South Africa – one of which focuses on water and sanitation infrastructure.[4] The water and sanitation SIP relates mostly to constructing, augmenting or upgrading bulk water schemes. Government has further prioritised maintenance of infrastructure through the National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy.[5]

But the challenges relating to infrastructure are merely manifestations of larger, systemic issues in the Department and local government. The Department is facing institutional and governance challenges that severely compromises its financial sustainability. The functioning of municipalities is at risk of failure because of financial mismanagement, a general failure to plan and a lack of accountability. As state actors that are tasked with managing water resource and service infrastructure, the issues expressed directly affect the condition of public infrastructure. Unless the governance issues are remedied, the condition of infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

This brief forms part of a research project into water in South Africa, financed by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Michelle Toxopeüs
Legal Researcher


[1]Nel et al, “Strategic water source areas for urban water security: Making the connection between protecting ecosystems and benefiting from their services” (2017) Ecosystem Services p 251-259.

[2] SAICE, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card for South Africa, accessed at http://saice.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/SAICE-IRC-2017.pdf. Previous editions were published in 2006 and 2011.

[4] PICC, 2012, A summary of the South African National Infrastructure Plan, accessed at https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/PICC_Final.pdf.

[5] DPW, 2007, National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy, accessed at http://www.cidb.org.za/publications/Documents/National%20Infrastructure%20Maintenance%20Strategy.pdf.