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Frequently Asked Questions

Water in General

1. How much water is there on earth?

Water is life. For millions for years life on earth has been dependant on water for survival. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 he described Planet Earth as “a shining blue pearl spinning in space”. The blue colour is, in fact, the amount of water that is present on the surface. 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water but of this, approximately 97% is salt water, with the remaining 3% being fresh water. Of this 3%, less than 1% is available for life on earth, whilst the rest is in the form of ice at the poles. But where does water come from?

The water that we have on earth is very old. The water that we are using now was used by the dinosaurs millions of years ago. This is because the earth recycles its water, i.e. it reuses its water. This recycling of water is called the water cycle. Water exists on earth as water droplets and is found in oceans, rivers, lakes, dams, swimming pools, the soil, etc. Heat from the sun causes some of these water droplets to change from a liquid to a gas, called water vapour.This is called evaporation. The water vapour then rises into the atmosphere. As the water vapour rises it cools down and changes from a gas to a liquid, and thus back into water droplets. This is called condensation. When these water droplets are in the atmosphere they join together and form clouds. When these droplets get too heavy to stay in the atmosphere they fall to the earth as rain, hail, snow, etc. This is called precipitation. Some of these water droplets fall into oceans, some into rivers and streams, some into lakes and dams, and some onto the land where it either seeps into the ground or runs off the surface into rivers, lakes, dams or the ocean. Water knows no boundaries and as it flows over the earth’s surface it is used by communities of plants, animals and humans in order to survive. These water droplets can then be reheated by the sun and the whole cycle repeats itself.

2. What Is The Water Situation In South Africa?

The water crisis in South Africa has already assumed alarming proportions and is currently regarded as one of the most serious environmental issues. Due to the destruction of river catchments and pollution, there is tremendous pressure on the provision of an adequate water supply for both an increasing population and vital economic growth. Despite large scale water management projects, such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme, a long-term solution ensuring safe water for everyone is only possible through research, education and active conservation of catchment areas.

Water knows no boundaries and as it flows it links communities together through their numerous uses of this resource. The quality of a stream or river is often a good indication of the way of life within a community through which it flows. It is indisputably an indicator of the socio-economic conditions and environmental awareness and attitude of its users. Everything that happens in a catchment area is reflected in the quality of the water that flows through it, because the results of human activity and lifestyle ultimately end up in rivers, through run-off.

South Africa has a semi-arid climate. Its recurring cycles of drought and flood have underlined the importance of water as our most precious resource. The tributary streams of the rivers draining both the southern and northern Gauteng Province are severely impacted by mining, industrial and urban activities. Human activities impact on the natural balances that exist within a river. Economic growth and urbanisation, which have to satisfy the needs of a rapidly growing population, have rapidly degraded most of the natural catchment areas of southern Africa. Well managed catchments are the key to satisfactory food production and a good quality of life, which go hand in hand with a stable river ecosystem supporting healthy water life.

The draining of wetlands, the destruction of vegetation in mountain catchments (through fires and farming), the removal of riverine vegetation, the increase in soil erosion, the seeping of fertilisers from farmland and the inflow of effluent have all contributed significantly to the degradation of river catchments.

Catchments in southern Africa must therefore be monitored closely and managed carefully, paying particular attention to the following:

  • Vleis and marshes are important as a natural means of improving the water that passes through them.
  • Natural vegetation surrounding rivers slows erosion to normal levels and reduces the devastating impact of floods.
  • A natural inflow of nutrients maintains a healthy variety of plant and animal life, which facilitates the purification of drinking water and makes it safer for human use.

3. What is the Water Cycle?

The water cycle is the cycle water goes through on earth. It makes the rain, clouds, and most of our weather.

  • First, water on the earth and in the sea is evaporated by the heat from the Sun.
  • Excess water from plants is also absorbed into the atmosphere, this process is called transpiration.
  • Then, water collects as water vapour in the sky. This makes clouds.
  • Next, the water in the clouds gets cold. This makes it become liquid again.
  • Then, the water falls from the sky as rain, snow, sleet, or hail which is called precipitation.
  • The water then collects into lakes, oceans, or aquifers. From there, it evaporates again and continues the cycle.

The water cycle is the movement of water in its different states around the planet. Water cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be polluted, cleaned and moved around the earth. The amount of water on earth remains constant and for this reason we must conserve it. As more and more water is polluted, there is less and less clean water for people to use.

The water cycle has no beginning and no end, it continues in the constant patterns of the planet’s weather, rivers and oceans. Water that evaporates from the rivers, lakes, dams and oceans rises up into the atmosphere in the form of water vapour. Further water is added to the atmosphere through evapo-transpiration, water that comes out of the leaves of plants. As this water vapour reaches higher altitudes, it cools and condenses back into liquid water. This water build up into clouds in the atmosphere and then falls as rain or hail to the earth. Once it falls back to earth, it becomes run-off which flows in drainage lines back into major rivers. Some of the run-off will seep into the ground. This is called infiltration. This water will enter the ground water system, which is linked to surface run-off in rivers, lakes and dams. Most rivers reach the ocean and water on its journey will be evaporated once again to continue the process.

Source (following information):

The sun, which drives the water cycle, heats water in the oceans. Water evaporates as vapour into the air. Ice and snow can sublimate directly into water vapour. Evapotranspiration is water transpired from plants and evaporated from the soil. Rising air currents take the vapour up into the atmosphere where cooler temperatures cause it to condense into clouds. Air currents move clouds around the globe, cloud particles collide, grow, and fall out of the sky as precipitation. Some precipitation falls as snow and can accumulate as ice caps and glaciers, which can store frozen water for thousands of years. Snowpacks can thaw and melt, and the melted water flows over land as snowmelt. Most precipitation falls back into the oceans or onto land, where the precipitation flows over the ground as surface runoff. A portion of runoff enters rivers in valleys in the landscape, with streamflow moving water towards the oceans. Runoff and groundwater are stored as freshwater in lakes. Not all runoff flows into rivers. Much of it soaks into the ground as infiltration. Some water infiltrates deep into the ground and replenishes aquifers, which store huge amounts of freshwater for long periods of time. Some infiltration stays close to the land surface and can seep back into surface-water bodies (and the ocean) as groundwater discharge. Some groundwater finds openings in the land surface and comes out as freshwater springs. Over time, the water returns to the ocean, where our water cycle started.

Different Processes

Condensed water vapor that falls to the Earth's surface. Most precipitation occurs as rain, but also includes snow, hail, fog drip, graupel, and sleet. Approximately 505,000 km3 (121,000 cu mi) of water fall as precipitation each year, 398,000 km3 (95,000 cu mi) of it over the oceans.

Canopy interception
The precipitation that is intercepted by plant foliage anPrecipitationd eventually evaporates back to the atmosphere rather than falling to the ground.

The runoff produced by melting snow.

The variety of ways by which water moves across the land. This includes both surface runoff and channel runoff. As it flows, the water may infiltrate into the ground, evaporate into the air, become stored in lakes or reservoirs, or be extracted for agricultural or other human uses.

The flow of water from the ground surface into the ground. Once infiltrated, the water becomes soil moisture or groundwater.

Subsurface Flow
The flow of water underground, in the vadose zone and aquifers. Subsurface water may return to the surface (eg. as a spring or by being pumped) or eventually seep into the oceans. Water returns to the land surface at lower elevation than where it infiltrated, under the force of gravity or gravity induced pressures. Groundwater tends to move slowly, and is replenished slowly, so it can remain in aquifers for thousands of years.

The transformation of water from liquid to gas phases as it moves from the ground or bodies of water into the overlying atmosphere. The source of energy for evaporation is primarily solar radiation. Evaporation often implicitly includes transpiration from plants, though together they are specifically referred to as evapotranspiration. Total annual evapotranspiration amounts to approximately 505,000 km3 (121,000 cu miles) of water, 434,000 km3 (104,000 cu miles) of which evaporates from the oceans.

The state change directly from solid water (snow or ice) to water vapor.

The movement of water — in solid, liquid, or vapor states — through the atmosphere. Without advection, water that evaporated over the oceans could not precipitate over land.

The transformation of water vapor to liquid water droplets in the air, producing clouds and fog.

The release of water vapor from plants into the air. Water vapor is a gas that cannot be seen.

How long does a molecule of water spend in a certain place in the water cycle?

Residence times

The residence time of a reservoir within the hydrologic cycle is the average time a water molecule will spend in that reservoir (see adjacent table). It is a measure of the average age of the water in that reservoir.

Groundwater can spend over 10,000 years beneath Earth's surface before leaving. Particularly old groundwater is called fossil water. Water stored in the soil remains there very briefly, because it is spread thinly across the Earth, and is readily lost by evaporation, transpiration, stream flow, or groundwater recharge. After evaporating, the residence time in the atmosphere is about 9 days before condensing and falling to the Earth as precipitation.

Average reservoir residence times

Average residence time
Oceans 3,200 years
Glaciers 20 to 100 years
Seasonal snow cover 2 to 6 months
Soil moisture 1 to 2 months
Groundwater: shallow 100 to 200 years
Groundwater: deep 10,000 years
Lakes 50 to 100 years
Rivers 2 to 6 months
Atmosphere 9 days

In hydrology, residence times can be estimated in two ways. The more common method relies on the principle of conservation of mass and assumes the amount of water in a given reservoir is roughly constant. With this method, residence times are estimated by dividing the volume of the reservoir by the rate by which water either enters or exits the reservoir. Conceptually, this is equivalent to timing how long it would take the reservoir to become filled from empty if no water were to leave (or how long it would take the reservoir to empty from full if no water were to enter).

An alternative method to estimate residence times, which is gaining in popularity for dating groundwater, is the use of isotopic techniques. This is done in the subfield of isotope hydrology.

Changes over time

The water cycle describes the processes that drive the movement of water throughout the hydrosphere. However, much more water is "in storage" for long periods of time than is actually moving through the cycle. The storehouses for the vast majority of all water on Earth are the oceans. It is estimated that of the 332,500,000 mi3 (1,386,000,000 km3) of the world's water supply, about 321,000,000 mi3 (1,338,000,000 km3) is stored in oceans, or about 95%. It is also estimated that the oceans supply about 90% of the evaporated water that goes into the water cycle.

During colder climatic periods more ice caps and glaciers form, and enough of the global water supply accumulates as ice to lessen the amounts in other parts of the water cycle. The reverse is true during warm periods. During the last ice age glaciers covered almost one-third of Earth's land mass, with the result being that the oceans were about 400 ft (122 m) lower than today. During the last global "warm spell," about 125,000 years ago, the seas were about 18 ft (5.5 m) higher than they are now. About three million years ago the oceans could have been up to 165 ft (50 m) higher.

The scientific consensus expressed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Summary for Policymakers is for the water cycle to continue to intensify throughout the 21st century, though this does not mean that precipitation will increase in all regions. In subtropical land areas — places that are already relatively dry — precipitation is projected to decrease during the 21st century, increasing the probability of drought. The drying is projected to be strongest near the poleward margins of the subtropics (for example, the Mediterranean Basin, South Africa, southern Australia, and the Southwestern United States). Annual precipitation amounts are expected to increase in near-equatorial regions that tend to be wet in the present climate, and also at high latitudes. These large-scale patterns are present in nearly all of the climate model simulations conducted at several international research centers as part of the 4th Assessment of the IPCC.

Glacial retreat is also an example of a changing water cycle, where the supply of water to glaciers from precipitation cannot keep up with the loss of water from melting and sublimation. Glacial retreat since 1850 has been extensive.

Human activities that alter the water cycle include:

  • agriculture
  • industry
  • alteration of the chemical composition of the atmosphere
  • construction of dams
  • deforestation and afforestation
  • removal of groundwater from wells
  • water abstraction from rivers
  • urbanization

Effects on climate

The water cycle is powered from solar energy. 86% of the global evaporation occurs from the oceans, reducing their temperature by evaporative cooling. Without the cooling effect of evaporation the greenhouse effect would lead to a much higher surface temperature of 67 °C (153 °F), and a warmer planet.

Effects on biogeochemical cycling

While the water cycle is itself a biogeochemical cycle, flow of water over and beneath the Earth is a key component of the cycling of other biogeochemicals. Runoff is responsible for almost all of the transport of eroded sediment and phosphorus from land to waterbodies. The salinity of the oceans is derived from erosion and transport of dissolved salts from the land. Cultural eutrophication of lakes is primarily due to phosphorus, applied in excess to agricultural fields in fertilizers, and then transported overland and down rivers. Both runoff and groundwater flow play significant roles in transporting nitrogen from the land to waterbodies. The dead zone at the outlet of the Mississippi River is a consequence of nitrates from fertilizer being carried off agricultural fields and funnelled down the river system to the Gulf of Mexico. Runoff also plays a part in the carbon cycle, again through the transport of eroded rock and soil.


1. Arctic Climatology and Meteorology. Precipitation.
2. Dr. Art's Guide to Planet Earth. The Water Cycle.
3. National Weather Service Northwest River Forecast Center. Hydrologic Cycle. 

4. What is Groundwater?

Groundwater is water located beneath the ground surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of lithologic formations. A unit of rock or an unconsolidated deposit is called an aquifer when it can yield a usable quantity of water. The depth at which soil pore spaces or fractures and voids in rock become completely saturated with water is called the water table. Groundwater is recharged from, and eventually flows to, the surface naturally; natural discharge often occurs at springs and seeps, and can form oases or wetlands. Groundwater is also often withdrawn for agricultural, municipal and industrial use by constructing and operating extraction wells. The study of the distribution and movement of groundwater is hydrogeology, also called groundwater hydrology.

Typically, groundwater is thought of as liquid water flowing through shallow aquifers, but technically it can also include soil moisture, permafrost (frozen soil), immobile water in very low permeability bedrock, and deep geothermal or oil formation water. Groundwater is hypothesized to provide lubrication that can possibly influence the movement of faults. It is likely that much of the Earth's subsurface contains some water, which may be mixed with other fluids in some instances. Groundwater may not be confined only to the Earth. The formation of some of the landforms observed on Mars may have been influenced by groundwater. There is also evidence that liquid water may also exist in the subsurface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

Source (following information):


An aquifer is a layer of porous substrate that contains and transmits groundwater. When water can flow directly between the surface and the saturated zone of an aquifer, the aquifer is unconfined. The deeper parts of unconfined aquifers are usually more saturated since gravity causes water to flow downward.

The upper level of this saturated layer of an unconfined aquifer is called the water table or phreatic surface. Below the water table, where generally all pore spaces are saturated with water is the phreatic zone.

Substrate with low porosity that permits limited transmission of groundwater is known as an aquitard. An aquiclude is a substrate with porosity that is so low it is virtually impermeable to groundwater.

A confined aquifer is an aquifer that is overlain by a relatively impermeable layer of rock or substrate such as an aquiclude or aquitard. If a confined aquifer follows a downward grade from its recharge zone, groundwater can become pressurised as it flows. This can create artesian wells that flow freely without the need of a pump and rise to a higher elevation than the static water table at the above, unconfined, aquifer.

The characteristics of aquifers vary with the geology and structure of the substrate and topography in which they occur. Generally, the more productive aquifers occur in sedimentary geologic formations. By comparison, weathered and fractured crystalline rocks yield smaller quantities of groundwater in many environments. Unconsolidated to poorly cemented alluvial materials that have accumulated as valley-filling sediments in major river valleys and geologically subsiding structural basins are included among the most productive sources of groundwater.

The high specific heat capacity of water and the insulating effect of soil and rock can mitigate the effects of climate and maintain groundwater at a relatively steady temperature. In some places where groundwater temperatures are maintained by this effect at about 50°F/10°C, groundwater can be used for controlling the temperature inside structures at the surface. For example, during hot weather relatively cool groundwater can be pumped through radiators in a home and then returned to the ground in another well. During cold seasons, because it is relatively warm, the water can be used in the same way as a source of heat for heat pumps that is much more efficient than using air. The relatively constant temperature of groundwater can also be used for heat pumps.

Relative groundwater travel times

Groundwater makes up about twenty percent of the world's fresh water supply, which is about 0.61% of the entire world's water, including oceans and permanent ice. Global groundwater storage is roughly equal to the total amount of freshwater stored in the snow and ice pack, including the north and south poles. This makes it an important resource which can act as a natural storage that can buffer against shortages of surface water, as in during times of drought.

Groundwater is naturally replenished by surface water from precipitation, streams, and rivers when this recharge reaches the water table.

Groundwater can be a long-term 'reservoir' of the natural water cycle (with residence times from days to millennia), as opposed to short-term water reservoirs like the atmosphere and fresh surface water (which have residence times from minutes to years). The figure shows how deep groundwater (which is quite distant from the surface recharge) can take a very long time to complete its natural cycle.

The Great Artesian Basin in central and eastern Australia is one of the largest confined aquifer systems in the world, extending for almost 2 million km2. By analysing the trace elements in water sourced from deep underground, hydrogeologists have been able to determine that water extracted from these aquifers can be more than 1 million years old.

By comparing the age of groundwater obtained from different parts of the Great Artesian Basin, hydrogeologists have found it increases in age across the basin. Where water recharges the aquifers along the Eastern Divide, ages are young. As groundwater flows westward across the continent, it increases in age, with the oldest groundwater occurring in the western parts. This means that in order to have travelled almost 1000 km from the source of recharge in 1 million years, the groundwater flowing through the Great Artesian Basin travels at an average rate of about 1 metre per year.


Certain problems have beset the use of groundwater around the world. Just as river waters have been over-used and polluted in many parts of the world, so too have aquifers. The big difference is that aquifers are out of sight. The other major problem is that water management agencies, when calculating the ‘sustainable yield’ of aquifer and river water, have often counted the same water twice, once in the aquifer, and once in its connected river. This problem, although understood for centuries, has persisted, partly through inertia within government agencies. In Australia, for example, prior to the statutory reforms initiated by the Council of Australian Governments water reform framework in the 1990s, many Australian States managed groundwater and surface water through separate government agencies, an approach beset by rivalry and poor communication.

The time lags inherent in the dynamic response of groundwater to development have generally been ignored by water management agencies, decades after scientific understanding of the issue was consolidated. In brief, the effects of groundwater overdraft (although undeniably real) may take decades or centuries to manifest themselves. In a classic study in 1982, Bredehoeft and colleagues[2] modelled a situation where groundwater extraction in an intermontane basin withdrew the entire annual recharge, leaving ‘nothing’ for the natural groundwater-dependent vegetation community. Even when the borefield was situated close to the vegetation, 30% of the original vegetation demand could still be met by the lag inherent in the system after 100 years. By year 500 this had reduced to 0%, signalling complete death of the groundwater-dependent vegetation. The science has been available to make these calculations for decades; however water management agencies have generally ignored effects which will appear outside the rough timeframe of political elections (3 to 5 years). Sophocleous argued strongly that management agencies must define and use appropriate timeframes in groundwater planning. This will mean calculating groundwater withdrawal permits based on predicted effects decades, sometimes centuries in the future.

As water moves through the landscape it collects soluble salts, mainly sodium chloride. Where such water enters the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, these salts are left behind. In irrigation districts, poor drainage of soils and surface aquifers can result in water tables coming to the surface in low-lying areas. Major land degradation problems of salinity and waterlogging result, combined with increasing levels of salt in surface waters. As a consequence, major damage has occurred to local economies and environments.

Four important effects are worthy of brief mention. First, flood mitigation schemes, intended to protect infrastructure built on floodplains, have had the unintended consequence of reducing aquifer recharge associated with natural flooding. Second, prolonged depletion of groundwater in extensive aquifers can result in land subsidence, with associated infrastructure damage – as well as (thirdly) saline intrusion. Fourth, draining acid sulphate soils, often found in low-lying coastal plains, can result in acidification and pollution of formerly freshwater and estuarine streams.

Another cause for concern is that groundwater drawdown from over-allocated aquifers has the potential to cause severe damage to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems – in some cases very conspicuously but in others quite imperceptibly because of the extended period over which the damage occurs.


Groundwater is a highly useful and often abundant resource. However, over-use, or overdraft, can cause major problems to human users and to the environment. The most evident problem (as far as human groundwater use is concerned) is a lowering of the water table beyond the reach of existing wells. Wells must consequently be deepened to reach the groundwater; in some places (e.g. California, Texas and India) the water table has dropped hundreds of feet because of excessive well pumping. In the Punjab region of India, for example, groundwater levels have dropped 10 metres since 1979, and the rate of depletion is accelerating. A lowered water table may, in turn, cause other problems such as subsidence and saltwater intrusion.

Groundwater is also ecologically important. The importance of groundwater to ecosystems is often overlooked, even by freshwater biologists and ecologists. Groundwaters sustain rivers, wetlands and lakes, as well as subterranean ecosystems within karst or alluvial aquifers.

Not all ecosystems need groundwater, of course. Some terrestrial ecosystems - for example, those of the open deserts and similar arid environments - exist on irregular rainfall and the moisture it delivers to the soil, supplemented by moisture in the air. While there are other terrestrial ecosystems in more hospitable environments where groundwater plays no central role, groundwater is in fact fundamental to many of the world’s major ecosystems. Water flows between groundwaters and surface waters. Most rivers, lakes and wetlands are fed by, and (at other places or times) feed groundwater, to varying degrees. Groundwater feeds soil moisture through percolation, and many terrestrial vegetation communities depend directly on either groundwater or the percolated soil moisture above the aquifer for at least part of each year. Hypoheic zones (the mixing zone of streamwater and groundwater) and riparian zones are examples of ecotones largely or totally dependent on groundwater.

When we extract groundwater linked to a river system, we extract water from that river, even if the result is not evident for some time. And of course vice versa. Water management agencies around the world are still struggling to come to terms with this simple fact.


In its natural equilibrium state, the hydraulic pressure of groundwater in the pore spaces of the aquifer and the aquitard supports some of the weight of the overlying sediments. When groundwater is removed from aquifers by excessive pumping, pore pressures in the aquifer drop and compression of the aquifer may occur. This compression may be partially recoverable if pressures rebound, but much of it is not. When the aquifer gets compressed it may cause land subsidence, a drop in the ground surface. The city of New Orleans, Louisiana, is actually below sea level today, and its subsidence is partly caused by removal of groundwater from the various aquifer/aquitard systems beneath it. In the first half of the 20th century, the city of San Jose, California, dropped 13 feet from land subsidence caused by overpumping; this subsidence has been halted with improved groundwater management.

Seawater intrusion

Generally, in very humid or undeveloped regions, the shape of the water table mimics the slope of the surface. The recharge zone of an aquifer near the seacoast is likely to be inland, often at considerable distance. In these coastal areas, a lowered water table may induce sea water to reverse the flow toward the sea. Sea water moving inland is called a saltwater intrusion. Alternatively, salt from mineral beds may leach into the groundwater of its own accord.


Sometimes the water movement from the recharge zone to the place where it is withdrawn may take centuries. When the usage of water is greater than the recharge, it is referred to as mining water (the water is often called fossil water because of its geologic age). Under those circumstances it is not a renewable resource.


Iron oxide staining caused by reticulation from an unconfined aquifer in karst topography. Perth, Western Australia.

Not all groundwater problems are caused by over-extraction. Pollutants released to the ground can work their way down into groundwater. Movement of water and dispersion within the aquifer spreads the pollutant over a wider area, which can then intersect with groundwater wells or find their way back into surface water, making the water supplies unsafe. The interaction of groundwater contamination with surface waters is analyzed by use of hydrology transport models.
The stratigraphy of the area plays an important role in the transport of these pollutants. An area can have layers of sandy soil, fractured bedrock, clay, or hardpan. Areas of karst topography on limestone bedrock are sometimes vulnerable to surface pollution from groundwater. Water table conditions are of great importance for drinking water supplies, agricultural irrigation, waste disposal (including nuclear waste), and other ecological issues.

Love Canal was one of the most widely known examples of groundwater pollution. In 1978, residents of the Love Canal neighborhood in upstate New York noticed high rates of cancer and an alarming number of birth defects. This was eventually traced to organic solvents and dioxins from an industrial landfill that the neighbourhood had been built over and around, which had then infiltrated into the water supply and evaporated in basements to further contaminate the air. Eight hundred families were reimbursed for their homes and moved, after extensive legal battles and media coverage.

Another example of widespread groundwater pollution is in the Ganges Plain of northern India and Bangladesh where severe contamination of groundwater by naturally occurring arsenic affects 25% of water wells in the shallower of two regional aquifers. The pollution occurs because aquifer sediments contain organic matter (dead plant material) that generates anaerobic (an environment without oxygen) conditions in the aquifer. These conditions result in the microbial dissolution of iron oxides in the sediment and thus the release of the arsenic, normally strongly bound to iron oxides, into the water. As a consequence, arsenic-rich groundwater is often iron-rich, although secondary processes often obscure the association of dissolved arsenic and dissolved iron.

5. What is a Catchment Area or Drainage Basin?

A catchment area in basic terms is the area of land that drains a river. Another term used to describe a catchment is a drainage basin. It is a relative term, and could apply to a small stream and the surrounding land that drains the run-off into its basin, or it could refer to the whole of the Congo river, for example, and all of the tributaries that feed it.


A catchment area or drainage basin is an extent of land where water from rain or snow melt drains downhill into a body of water, such as a river, lake, reservoir, estuary, wetland, sea or ocean. The drainage basin includes both the streams and rivers that convey the water as well as the land surfaces from which water drains into those channels, and is separated from adjacent basins by a drainage divide.

The drainage basin acts like a funnel, collecting all the water within the area covered by the basin and channelling it into a waterway. Each drainage basin is separated topographically from adjacent basins by a geographical barrier such as a ridge, hill or mountain, which is known as a water divide.
Other terms that are used to describe a drainage basin are catchment, catchment area, catchment basin, drainage area, river basin, water basin and watershed. In the technical sense, a watershed refers to a divide that separates one drainage area from another drainage area. However, in the United States and Canada, the term is often used to mean a drainage basin or catchment area itself. Drainage basins drain into other drainage basins in a hierarchical pattern, with smaller sub-drainage basins combining into larger drainage basins.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency launched the website Watershed Central for the US public to exchange information and locate resources needed to restore local drainage basins in that country.

Importance of drainage basins

Geopolitical boundaries

Drainage basins have been historically important for determining territorial boundaries, particularly in regions where trade by water has been important. For example, the English crown gave the Hudson's Bay Company a monopoly on the fur trade in the entire Hudson Bay watershed, an area called Rupert's Land. Today, bioregional democracy can include agreements of states in a particular drainage basin to defend it. One example of this is the Great Lakes Commission.


In hydrology, the drainage basin is a logical unit of focus for studying the movement of water within the hydrological cycle, because the majority of water that discharges from the basin outlet originated as precipitation falling on the basin. A portion of the water that enters the groundwater system beneath the drainage basin may flow towards the outlet of another drainage basin because groundwater flow directions do not always match those of their overlying drainage network. Measurement of the discharge of water from a basin may be made by a stream gauge located at the basin's outlet.

Rain gauge data is used to measure total precipitation over a drainage basin, and there are different ways to interpret that data. If the gauges are many and evenly distributed over an area of uniform precipitation, using the arithmetic mean method will give good results. In the Thiessen polygon method, the watershed is divided into polygons with the rain gauge in the middle of each polygon assumed to be representative for the rainfall on the area of land included in its polygon. These polygons are made by drawing lines between gauges, then making perpendicular bisectors of those lines form the polygons. The isohyetal method involves contours of equal precipitation are drawn over the gauges on a map. Calculating the area between these curves and adding up the volume of water is time consuming.


Drainage basins are the principal hydrologic unit considered in fluvial geomorphology. A drainage basin is the source for water and sediment that moves through the river system and reshapes the channel.


The Mississippi River drains the largest area of any U.S. river, much of it agricultural regions. Agricultural runoff and other water pollution that flows to the outlet is the cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Drainage basins are important elements to consider also in ecology. As water flows over the ground and along rivers it can pick up nutrients, sediment, and pollutants. Like the water, they get transported towards the outlet of the basin, and can affect the ecological processes along the way as well as in the receiving water source.

Modern usage of artificial fertilizers, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, has affected the mouths of watersheds. The minerals will be carried by the watershed to the mouth and accumulate there, disturbing the natural mineral balance. This can cause eutrophication where plant growth is accelerated by the additional material.

Resource management

Because drainage basins are coherent entities in a hydrological sense, it has become common to manage water resources on the basis of individual basins. In the U.S. state of Minnesota, governmental entities that perform this function are called watershed districts. In New Zealand, they are called catchment boards. Comparable community groups based in Ontario, Canada, are called conservation authorities. In North America this function is referred to as watershed management. In Brazil, the National Policy of Water Resources, regulated by Act n° 9.433 of 1997, establishes the drainage basin as territorial division of Brazilian water management.

Catchment factors

The catchment is the most significant factor determining the amount or likelihood of flooding.
Catchment factors are: topography, shape, size, soil type and land use (paved or roofed areas). Catchment topography and shape determine the time taken for rain to reach the river, Catchment size, soil type and development determine the amount of water to reach the river.

Topography: Topography determines the speed with which the runoff will reach a river. Clearly rain that falls in steep mountainous areas will reach the river faster than flat or gently sloping areas.

Shape: Shape will contribute to the speed with which the runoff reaches a river. A long thin catchment will take longer to drain than a circular catchment.

Size: Size will help determine the amount of water reaching the river, as the larger the catchment the greater the potential for flooding.

Soil type: Soil type will help determine how much water reaches the river. Certain soil types such as sandy soils are very free draining and rainfall on sandy soil is likely to be absorbed by the ground. However, soils containing clay can be almost impermeable and therefore rainfall on clay soils will run off and contribute to flood volumes. After prolonged rainfall even free draining soils can become saturated, meaning that any further rainfall will reach the river rather than being absorbed by the ground.

Land use: Land use can contribute to the volume of water reaching the river, in a similar way to clay soils. For example, rainfall on roofs, pavements and roads will be collected by rivers with almost no absorption into the groundwater.

6. What river catchment does our drinking water come from in Gauteng?

The drinking water in Gauteng comes from three different river catchments:

The Vaal Dam Catchment. This includes the Vaal and Klein Vaal rivers, the Waterval in Mpumalanga and the Klip and Wilge rivers in the Free State. The Vaal and Klein Vaal rise in Mpumalanga near the town of Ermelo and flow eastwards past Standerton to where the Vaal is dammed, near Vereeniging. The Wilge rises near Harrismith anf flows north-west and joins the Vaal at the Vaal Dam. The Klip rises in the eastern Free State and joins the Vaal in Mpumalanga.

The Senqu, or upper Orange river catchment. The project that supplies this water is called the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. In Lesotho, the Malibomatso River, which is part of the Orange river catchment, was dammed, forming the Katse Dam. Water from the Katse dam is pumped into the Ash river, which flows into the Liebenbergsvlei in the south-eastern Free State, and eventually into the Wilge and the Vaal Dam.

The Thukela-Vaal Transfer scheme. Water is pumped from the Driel Barrage on the Thukela river in Kwa-Zulu Natal into the Kilburn Dam. Water is then pumped from the Kilburn Dam into the Driekloof Dam in the Free State. This water then flows into the Sterkfontein dam on the Wilge river, and eventually ends up in the Vaal dam. Water from this scheme has not been released into the Vaal Dam catchment for the past six years.

7. Is Water for Free – should we have to pay for it?

Water is freely available from the natural water cycle but due to water in South Africa being a scarce resource and often a polluted resource, many systems need to be put into place so that we receive enough clean healthy water, i.e. dams, water transfer schemes, water purification stations, reservoirs, pipelines, etc. These systems cost large amounts of money and this is why we have to pay for water. At the moment you pay between R4 & R16 for 1000 litres for tap water, which is very cheap compared to your grocery items. If we continue to waste and pollute water then that cost will drastically increase. More dams and water transfer schemes will have to be built, and further technology will have to be included in Rand Water’s purification process, or further infrastructure built, to clean polluted water. That is why it is so important for people to change their attitude towards water, treat it with respect and use it WISELY. It is important that we all become WATER WISE!

8. What does it mean to be Water Wise"?

To be WISE means to take the knowledge you have gained and use it to benefit yourself and others including plants and animals, without causing harm. There are SIX “meanings” to being “Water Wise”:

All life on Earth needs water in order to survive. Without water, everything would be dead. The water we have on Earth today was used by the dinosaurs that lived millions and millions of years ago. As water is life, we must RESPECT it and must use it wisely. We must also RESPECT all life on Earth, that is, animals, plants, insects, birds & people that live on Earth. This is the first meaning to being “Water Wise”.

If you WASTE something, you use too much, or use it for no purpose. The Earth’s average rainfall is 985 mm per year, whereas South Africa receives 492 mm per year. This is nearly half of what the rest of the Earth receives. Added to this, South Africa has a very high evaporation rate, and has fluctuating periods of floods and droughts. A further problem is water management, as it costs a great deal of money to manage the dams and water transfer schemes so that humans receive enough water. Many people in South Africa also do not have access to enough clean water, and have to walk many kilometres to collect water from a river. It also costs a great deal of money for purification stations, like Rand Water, to purify dirty water so that it is clean and healthy to drink.

South Africa is presently classified by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) as a water stressed country. ‘Water stress is defined internationally as that condition which occurs when water availability per person, per year lies in a band ranging from 1000 to 1700 cubic metres’ (Turton, 2006). This commission predicts that in the year 2025 South Africa will be a water scarce country, which occurs when there is less than 1000 cubic metres per person, per year. We must all learn to NOT WASTE WATER. This is the second meaning to being “Water Wise”.

If you POLLUTE something, you spoil it by making it unclean or dangerous. Pollution affects the water life that lives in rivers and can spread disease in communities that drink raw water from a river. In South Africa the scarce fresh water is decreasing in quality because of an increase in pollution and the destruction of river catchments, caused by urbanisation, deforestation, damming of rivers, destruction of wetlands, industry, mining, agriculture, energy use, and accidental water pollution. It also costs more money for purification stations, like Rand Water, to clean polluted water. We must all learn to NOT POLLUTE WATER. This is the third meaning to being “Water Wise”.

Water comes freely from the sky so why do we need to PAY for water? Yes, water is free but in order for everyone to receive enough clean water from our taps we have to pay for it. We have to pay for the infrastructure and people that bring this clean water to the taps, that is:

  • the people who look after the rivers;
  • the dams that are built to store the water;
  • the purification stations that clean this water;
  • the pumps and pipes that transport the water to the reservoirs;
  • the reservoirs that store the clean water;
  • the pipes that transport the clean water to our taps;
  • and the wastewater treatment works that clean the dirty water that goes down the drain and puts it back into a river.

We must all PAY for our water services. This is the fourth meaning to being “Water Wise”.

ACTION means to do something. If we see an environmental problem we must do something about it in order to solve the problem. Examples: fix a leaking tap; throw litter in a dustbin; report a leaking pipe; recycle litter; clean up rivers; respect animals, plants and people; etc. Many people know the answers to being “Water Wise” but people must remember to PRACTISE being “Water Wise” in their daily lives. Take ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION! This is the fifth meaning to being “Water Wise”.

Water is important for all life on Earth and that is why we need to CONSERVE it. To CONSERVE something means that we care and protect things against neglect and damage. By conserving water we are conserving our environment and ensuring the survival of all life on Earth. All life on Earth is connected. If humans pollute water then it causes the fish and the insects in the river to get sick and die. If humans waste water then there isn’t enough for the animals and plants that share the Earth with us. We all live together on Earth and we must remember that when do something we could have a bad affect on these animals and plants. Water is life and life is water, and something that needs to be valued. So the sixth meaning to being “Water Wise” is CONSERVE WATER, CONSERVE THE ENVIRONMENT.

The six meanings of being “Water Wise” can be remembered by looking at the human hand, i.e. 5 fingers and a palm. This tool is used to portray the “Water Wise” message to the youth.

9. How much of your body is made up of water and where is it used?

  • 70% of the human body is made up of water.
  • 85% of the brain is made up of water.
  • The transparency of the media of the eye to light is maintained by water.
  • Sound is conducted through the inner ear by liquid.
  • Water (cerebrospinal fluid) serves as a cushion for the brain and spinal cord.
  • The sense organs of equilibrium depend upon the presence of water.
  • Water is important in equalizing the temperature throughout the body.
  • Water serves as a lubricant for moving parts such as joints, the heart and intestine.
  • Water dissolves or holds in suspension other materials in protoplasm.
  • Water moistens the surface of the lungs for gas diffusion.
  • Water is required for digestion, absorption, metabolism, secretion and excretion.
  • Water helps prevent constipation.
  • Helps dissolve minerals and other nutrients to make them accessible to the body.
  • Water carries nutrients and oxygen to the cells and removes waste matter from the body.

10. What is being done to get clean water to everyone?

After the end of Apartheid South Africa's newly elected government inherited huge services backlogs with respect to access to water supply and sanitation. About 15 million people were without safe water supply and over 20 million without adequate sanitation services. Since then, the country has made satisfactory progress with regard to improving access to water supply. However, much less progress has been achieved concerning access to sanitation and significant problems remain concerning the financial sustainability of investments and the lack of sufficient access to sanitation.

Key features that distinguish the South African water and sanitation sector from other countries are the following:

  • The existence of an important institutional tier between the national and local government in the form of Water Boards;
  • Strong linkages between water supply and sanitation and water resources management through these Water Boards;
  • A strong government commitment to high service standards and to high levels of investment subsidies to achieve those standards;
  • A policy of free basic water and sanitation;
  • Relatively stable and successful private sector participation in water supply;
  • A strong water industry with a track record in innovation.

Among the weaknesses in the sector are a lack of attention to maintenance and sustainability; a relative neglect of sanitation; and the uncertainty about the government's ability to sustain current funding levels in the sector.


South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that enshrines the basic right to sufficient water in its Constitution, stating that "Everyone has the right to have access to (...) sufficient food and water". However, much remains to be done to fulfil that right.

After the end of Apartheid South Africa's newly elected government inherited huge services backlogs with respect to access to water supply and sanitation. However, different sources give substantially different figures about access. According to one source, about 15 million people were without safe water supply and over 20 million without adequate sanitation services in 1990. Since then, an additional population of about 10 million people gained access to an improved water source. These figures, however, are not fully supported by census and survey data compiled by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program. According to these figures, the share of the population with access to an improved source of water supply has only increased from 83% in 1990 to 88% in 2004, implying that only 2 million people gained access in that period.

In his State of the Union address to Parliament in May 2004 President Thabo Mbeki promised "all households will have running water within five years". Given previous trends, achieving this objective is a major challenge.

With respect to sanitation the picture is more sobering. According to official figures, an estimated 18 million South Africans did not have access to basic sanitation in 2002 and may be using the bucket system, pit toilets or the "veld" (open defecation). When sanitation systems are inadequate the health impacts can be extremely serious. This is evidenced in the estimated 1.5 million cases of diarrhoea in children under five and the 2001 outbreak of cholera. According to estimates by the WHO/UNICEF global Joint Monitoring Program for water and sanitation based on survey and census data, the share of South Africans with access to adequate sanitation actually decreased from 69% in 1990 to 65% in 2004. Given these trends it is difficult to see how the national target of universal access to a functioning sanitation facility by 2010 can be achieved.

Furthermore, substantial challenges remain in addressing historical inequalities in access to both water supply and sanitation, and in sustaining service provision over the long term.

Service quality

Water supply

Service quality is highly variable and data is sketchy. Monitoring of service quality by the government's Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is only starting, with the "blue drop green drop" Water Quality Regulation Strategy. Thus 63% of municipalities could not say if they met drinking water quality standards or not. Water supply to 37% of households was interrupted for at least one day in 2003.


A survey by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) showed that wastewater treatment plants in the Gauteng area are working well and meet effluent standards. However, many other wastewater treatment plants do not meet effluent standards and some do not even measure effluent quality. According to Bluewater Bio, an international firm specialized in wastewater treatment, out of 1,600 wastewater treatment plants in South Africa at least 60% are not meeting regulatory compliance requirements.

Responsibility for water supply and sanitation

The water and sanitation sector in South Africa is organized in three different tiers:

  • The national government, represented by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), as a policy setter.
  • Water Boards, which provide primarily bulk water, but also some retail services and operate some wastewater treatment plants, in addition to playing a role in water resources management;
  • Municipalities, which provide most retail services and also own some of the bulk supply infrastructure;

Banks, private operators, the professional association WISA, the Water Research Commission and NGOs also play important roles in the sector.

Policy and regulation

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry(DWAF) is primarily responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy governing Water and Forestry. In the water sector, it is in charge of policies for water resources management as well as water supply and sanitation.

Water Boards

Government-owned Water Boards play a key role in the South African water sector. They operate dams, bulk water supply infrastructure, some retail infrastructure and some wastewater systems. Some also provide technical assistance to municipalities. Through their role in the operation of dams they also play an important role in water resources management. The Water Boards report to the Department of Water and Forestry.

There are 15 Water Boards in South Africa, together indirectly serving more than 24 million people in 90 municipalities in 2005, or about half the population of South Africa. The three largest Water Boards - Rand Water in Gauteng Province, Umgeni Water in KwaZulu Natal Province and Overberg Water - indirectly serve 10 million, 4 million and 2 million people respectively. This is three times as much (18 million) as all the 12 smaller water boards together (6 million). Rand Water has a more than 100-year history in the Gauteng area, the industrial heartland of South Africa. It buys water from DWAF, treats it and sells it to large industries, mines and municipalities.

The Water Boards have associated themselves in the South African Association of Water Utilities (SAAWU), which also includes a few municipal water companies.

Service provision

Responsibility for service provision is shared among municipalities, water boards and community-based organizations in rural areas. The national government, through the Department of Water and Forestry, also operates dams, bulk water supply infrastructure and some retail infrastructure.


According to the Constitution, the Municipal Structures Act and the Water Services Act of 1997 responsibility for the provision of water and sanitation services lies with the municipalities, which in practice means the country's 52 district municipalities. The national government can also assign responsibility for service provision to local municipalities, of which there are 231. Overall, there are 169 water service authorities in South Africa, including water boards, district municipalities, local municipalities and municipal companies.

The responsibility for rural water supply and sanitation has been transferred from the national government, represented by DWAF, to municipalities.

Commercialization and private sector participation

Since 1994 some municipalities have involved the private sector in service provision in various forms, including contracts for specific services such as wastewater treatment, short-term management contracts and long-term concessions.


Research, training and knowledge

South Africa has a fairly strong research and training infrastructure in the water sector. The Water Research Commission (WRC) supports water research and development as well as the building of a sustainable water research capacity in South Africa. It serves as the country's water-centred knowledge 'hub' leading the creation, dissemination and application of water-centred knowledge, focusing on water resource management, water-linked ecosystems, water use and waste management and water utilisation in agriculture.

The Water Institute of South Africa (WISA), a professional association, keeps its members abreast of the latest developments in water technology and research through its national and international liaison, links and affiliations.

Financiers and Promoters

The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) is an important player in the water and sanitation sector, both as a financier and as an advisor and project promoter. In 2005-2006 about 29% of its approved projects were for water supply (1,881 million Rand) and sanitation (165 million Rand). Other financing institutions in the sector include the Infrastructure Finance Corporation Limited, which claims to be the only 100% privately owned infrastructure debt fund in the world.

Non-governmental organizations

The Mvula trust is a well-known water supply and sanitation non-governmental organisation (NGO) in South Africa, which has disbursed over R300 million to water services programmes and projects and has provided services to over a million South Africans who previously did not have access to either water or sanitation services. It is specialized in implementing and supporting the delivery of water services in rural and peri-urban areas through community management, the establishment of community based water services providers and supporting local authorities to create an enabling environment for sustainability.

There are also many other smaller NGOs that together play an important role in the sector.

History and recent developments

The skyline of Johannesburg's Central Business District as seen from the observatory of the Carlton Centre.

The history of the water supply and sanitation sector since the end of Apartheid has been characterized by a strong government commitment to increase access to services and a gradual reduction of the role of Water Boards and the national government in service provision. There has also been a tension between the goal of increased cost recovery enshrined in the 1997 Water Services Act on the one hand, and the constitutional right to access to water introduced in 1996 and the policy of free basic water introduced in 2001 on the other hand. There have been a number of controversies on policies in the sectors, including about private sector participation, which was introduced in the mid-1990s, the practice of cutting off water or installing flow restrictors for those who do not pay their bills, and the installation of pre-paid meters.

1997 Water Services Act

In 1994 the government published its first White Paper on Water and Sanitation Policy, which led to the Water Services Act of 1997.

The Act calls for higher cost recovery, which proved a challenge due to widespread poverty and a culture of non-payment for water in many Townships, as a remnant of protests against Apartheid. Higher water tariffs and rigorous cut-offs for non-payment, or flow reductions through the installation of "tricklers" that allow only a very limited flow of water, imposed hardships on the poorest.

The Act also modified the role of Water Boards, providing a clear legal definition of the functions of Water Boards and municipalities. Water Boards have historically been the only bulk water providers. Municipalities were obliged to buy water through them. The Act allowed municipalities to develop their own bulk water supply infrastructure or to buy bulk water from providers other than Water Boards. Conversely it also allowed Water Boards to provide retail water services at the request of municipalities. Since the Act has been passed the capacity of both Water Boards and many water service providers has increased significantly.

2000: The promise of free basic water and management contract for Johannesburg:

Free basic water. After Thabo Mbeki became President of South Africa in 1999 and a cholera outbreak occurred in 2000, the African National Congress promised free basic water during a municipal election campaign in December 2000. In July 2001 a revised tariff structure was suggested that included 6 "kilolitres"" (cubic meters) of free water per month (40 litre/capita/day for a family of five or 25 litre/capita/day for a family of eight). Putting the policy of free basic water in practice proved a challenge. The policy is only being implemented gradually.

Johannesburg management contract. Building on earlier experiences with private sector participation since 1994, a five-year management contract for water services in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and the country's economic and financial hub, was awarded in 2000 to the Joint Venture Water and Sanitation Services South Africa (WSSA). The Johannesburg management contract was not renewed when it expired in 2005. However, private operators continue to provide services in many other South African cities.

Pre-paid meters. Pre-paid meters were introduced in Johannesburg, including in Soweto, and in other cities as part of management contracts with private operators. These meters, which cut off water supply above the 6 cubic meter monthly limit if no payment is made, sparked substantial protests in poor neighbourhoods. In Johannesburg they were maintained even after the management contract expired.

In April 2008 the South African High Court found this practice unconstitutional, and wrote that denying the poor access to adequate water “is to deny them the rights to health and to lead a dignified lifestyle.” Further, the judge stated that “25 liters per person per day is insufficient for the residents of Phiri”, and ordered the city to provide free basic water in the amount of 50 liters per person per day with the option of an ordinary credit-metered water supply (instead of pre-paid) for more use. The Court apparently assumed a household size of eight. Phiri is a neighborhood in Soweto whose residents had sued against pre-paid meters.

2001 Basic Sanitation White Paper

In response to the fact that access to sanitation lags significantly behind access to water, the government published its White Paper on Basic Household Sanitation in 2001. It called for universal access to basic sanitation by March 2010, with priority accorded to communities with the greatest needs. The policy outlines the roles of the various stakeholders - households, municipalities, provincial governments, various branches of national government - and establishes coordination and monitoring mechanisms. It also calls for Infrastructure Grants to municipalities to finance investments in sanitation. The paper notes that it is the government's policy to provide free basic services to the poorest, but does not spell out how this policy will be implemented in the case of basic sanitation.

2002 National Strategy: A less prominent role for the national government

Following a second White Paper on water supply and sanitation policy published in 2002 (after the first White Paper in 1994) a national policy was established to further decentralize the sector, phasing out the national government's involvement in service provision, limiting DWAF's role to policy and regulation. In rural areas this policy of decentralization has been supported by the Masibambane program, a sector-wide approach linked to budget-based donor support for rural water supply and sanitation. The initial investment was ZAR 2.2 billion (EUR 279 million) with a focus on the three poorest provinces and a target to reach about 2.5 million people. A 2004 evaluation by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) Africa showed that the program performed well financially.[23] The program is now in its third phase.

Ministers of Water Affairs and Forestry

  • Dr. Kader Asmal (1994-1999)
  • Mr. Ronnie Kasrils (1999-2004)
  • Ms. Buyelwa Sonjica (2004-2006)
  • Ms. Lindiwe Hendricks (since May 2006)


In Johannesburg, non-revenue water was estimated at 42% in 2001 and 37% in 2003.

Financial aspects

Tariffs, Cost Recovery and Free Basic Water
South Africa has introduced a policy of free basic services, including water, electricity and solid waste collection. As part of that policy, every eligible household is to receive the first 6 cubic meters per month for free. The policy was not to be implemented immediately, but gradually and within the means of each municipality. Municipalities would decide if free basic water would be made available only to the poor, and how the poor would be defined and identified, or if it would be granted to all water users. The cost of the policy has been estimated at 1.5bn Rand or 0.15% of GDP. The subsidy is to be financed either through subsidies from the national government from the "equitable share" automatic transfers, through cross-subsidies from other users or local taxes. Making the subsidy available to the poorest users is a challenge. Nevertheless, in August 2007 36 million South Africans (about 75% of the population) had access to free basic water according to DWAF's water sector information system. Out of 169 service providers, 13 provided free basic water to all its users, 149 to some and 7 to none. In 2007 the program reached 86% of all households and 87% of poor households. Economist Paul Berkowitz of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Witwatersrand University concludes that it is a good program with almost universal coverage of municipalities without having bankrupted them.

According to Nkululeko Gmuede, a former official at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, around 75% of all free water benefits people who can pay for it. The policy is more successful in wealthier municipalities than in low-income rural areas. This is one of the reasons why the government is reviewing its implementation strategy for free basic water, possibly through registers of poor users.

It has been suggested to also adopt a policy of free basic sanitation, which is likely to present even greater challenges.

There is little information available on actual water tariffs and on their affordability, i.e. the share of water bills in household income.

According to the Infrastructure Barometer published by DBSA and based on figures provided by the National Treasury, total investments in water supply and sanitation in 2002/2003 were as follows:

  • 1,137 million Rand for water supply by municipalities
  • 485 million Rand for sanitation by municipalities
  • 428 million Rand for water supply and some water resources development by Water Boards

Total investments thus stood at 2,450 million Rand or about US$ 250 million, corresponding to about US$ 5/capita. The Compass does not mention any investments by DWAF.

The 2002 White Paper estimated investments in the sector to be much higher, at 5bn Rand annually. This included 1.2 bn Rand of investments made by DWAF, 1.0 by Water Boards and 2.8 by municipalities.

Municipal infrastructure investments were financed from the following sources in 2002/2003:

  • 24% through municipal and provincial grants (each 12%);
  • 15% through loans;
  • 42% through internal cash generation; and
  • 19% through other sources.

The larger municipalities rely more on loans and on internal cash generation, while the smaller ones depend more on grants and other sources of funding.

All municipalities receive a constitutionally mandated share of national tax revenues as an unconditional recurrent grant, called "equitable share". The formula benefits poorer municipalities.
In addition there is a Municipal Infrastructure Grant (MIG) administered by the Department of Provincial and Local Government. and a Capacity Building Grant. The MIG programme is aimed at providing all South Africans with at least a basic level of service by the year 2013 through the provision of grant finance to cover the capital cost of basic infrastructure for the poor.

Criticism of Government water and sanitation policy

Because of the privatisation of basic services such as water and sanitation in South Africa, the actual impact of service delivery by the government is seen as questionable. There are a number of new social movements (such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign) representing the poorest and most oppressed communities in South Africa that have emerged to deal with issues relating to government service delivery and policy. Supplying water to these communities is one of the main issues that these movements address and there is a specific focus on preventing water cut-offs and campaigning for free basic water. Because of their criticism of the government, they have suffered severe repression by officials and police.


  • Infrastructure Barometer 2006, p. 121-122
  • Infrastructure Barometer 2006 p. 86-87
  • Constitution of 1996, Chapter 2, Section 27
  • BUSARI, Ola and JACKSON, Barry: Reinforcing water and sanitation sector reform in South Africa, Water Policy, 2006, vol. 8, no4, pp. 303-312.
  • See WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP):Water in South Africa. The calculation is based on a population of 40 million in 1990 and 46 million in 2004. Survey and census data used for estimates are only for the 1996-2003 period, extrapolating data to estimate earlier figures, since the 1994/1995 survey data showing very high access data were considered unreliable by the JMP.
  • Mbeki State of the Union 2004
  • 2001 basic household sanitation White Paper
  • WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program: Sanitation in South Africa
  • Water Quality Regulation, a strategy for incentive-based regulation (blue and green drop status)
  • Global Water Intelligence:Bluewater Bio's South African Safari, November 2009, p. 26
  • Infrastructure Barometer 2006, p. 123
  • South African Association of Water Utilities (SAAWU)
  • Republic of South Africa, Department of Water and Forestry:Water Services Act of 1997, accessed on September 27, 2009
  • Water Research Commission (WRC)
  • Development Bank of Southern Africa Annual Report 2005-2006, p. 7
  • INCA
  • Mvula Trust
  • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio:Whose hand on the tap? Water privatization in South Africa, Bob Carty, February 2003
  • 2002 White Paper
  • Pacific Institute
  • Sanitation White Paper
  • Draft 2002 White Paper of Water Supply and Sanitation
  • IRC Masibambane
  • For more details see DWAF 2001 Implementation Strategy for Free Basic Water
  • White Paper 2002, p. 34
  • Water sector national information system (WSNIS)
  • DWAF Free Basic Water
  • The price of free water in South Africa, in:Global Water Intelligence, August 2009, p. 31
  • This uses an exchange rate of 1:10 that prevailed in fall 2002. In June 2003 the exchange rate was less than 1:8 after an appreciation of the Rand
  • White Paper 2002, p. 2, with no reference given to a specific year or years. At an exchange rate of 6 Rand to 1 US$ in early 2000 this corresponds to about US$800 million. However at the 2002 exchange rate of 10 Rand to 1 US$ it corresponds to only US$500 million.
  • Infrastructure Barometer 2006 p. 87. The shares refer to all municipal infrastructure investments. There are no figures specifically for water supply and sanitation.
  • For more information on MIG see MIG

Water Privatisation in South Africa

Water privatisation in South Africa is an extremely contentious issue based on historical trends of denial of access to water and current economic needs. About a third of the South African population has no access to clean water, which has led to disease that has hindered further economic growth. Suez and Veolia are French water firms with contracts in South Africa. Water privatization has taken many different forms in South Africa. Since 1994 some municipalities have involved the private sector in water and sanitation service provision through short-term management contracts, long-term concessions and contracts for specific services such as wastewater treatment. Most municipalities continue to provider water and sanitation services through public utilities or directly themselves.

In January 1999, the Siza Water Company (SWC) became the first private company to manage a water and wastewater utility in South Africa. Under a groundbreaking 30-year concession contract, SWC assumed responsibility for providing water and sanitation services to what was then known as the Borough of Dolphin Coast, a locality in the iLembe District Municipality with a permanent population estimated at 34,000 located about 50 kilometers north of Durban. The privatization was welcomed and supported by the city council and senior government officials, including President Thabo Mbeki who visited the area to sanction the process. The Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Unit supported the development and completion of the concession arrangement by providing technical and advisory services during the conception and contract development phase. This helped to make this option understandable and financially feasible. SWC is a local company formed by Saur International of France (which holds a 58% share), four other companies and company employees. After initial difficulties the contract was renegotiated in 2001, including a substantial reduction in investment requirements and the provision of free basic water. A more accurate billing and collection system has led to an increase in revenues of 68%, while tariffs were increased by about 30% and the number of customers increased by 6%.

In January 2001, the city of Johannesburg established the municipal company Johannesburg Water and subsequently signed a management contract with Water and Sanitation Services South Africa (WSSA), a joint venture between Suez (ex-Lyonnaise des Eaux), its subsidiary Northumbrian Water Group and the South African company Group 5. The contract was not extended when it expired in 2006.

In 2003, WSSA also had a 25- year concession in Queenstown, Eastern Cape and provided water and wastewater services to over 2 million people in the provinces of Kwa-Zulu Natal (Dolphin Coast), Eastern Cape (including in Stutterheim), Western Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng.

A private sector contract has also been signed in Nelspruit in Mpumalanga (ex-East Transvaal).

Pre-1994 elections

Water has been an issue of great concern throughout South Africa's history. As its economy is based on water-intensive industries, the secure and permanent access and distribution of water to industries was always a focus of the government. This included regulating access to well water in the 17th century in the Cape Colony to standardised water prices for miners during the Witwatersrand Gold Rush. However, the most complete legislation over water access in South Africa was passed during the apartheid era in 1965. The Water Act of 1965, as the Act came to be known, granted riparian rights to farmers, mines, and forestry industries for water on, under, or adjacent to their properties. It also provided for below cost water subsidies from the state, who also delivered the water for no cost.

Almost all white communities in South Africa had permanent delivery of clean water, while very few townships had water access. Water access was mostly provided by ad-hoc wells dug by township residents.


When South Africa emerged from decades of apartheid rule in 1994, there were great expectations from previously disadvantaged groups that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) would immediately begin extending government services. As a part of their platform for the first multi-racial general election in South African history, the ANC promised to ensure that all South Africans had permanent access to clean water by 2010. This movement was crystalised in the National Water Act of 1999, which described water access as a fundamental human right. However, the Act also permitted municipalities to privatise their water boards to private companies, which has proved extremely controversial as companies have been accused of price gouging and speculation.
Due to substantial government investment and privatisation schemes, access to drinking water has been improved over the past decade. According to Statistics South Africa, over 86% of the population had access to improved water services in 2000. But such improvements have come at a high price as the government has relied on (full) cost recovery and various forms of privatisation and corporatization to deliver water. As a result of these policies, millions of predominantly low-income households have had their water access cut for nonpayment of services, typically because they cannot afford to pay the increased prices associated with cost recovery.

Concurrently, a three year cholera epidemic affecting over 100,000 people broke out in 2002, in part because of the introduction of cost recovery and user fees in the water sector which forced many rural homesteads to use contaminated surface water. The same year, the government embarked on an internationally praised project that was designed to provide free water for people. This program provides six kilolitres of water to each household per month, but is widely criticized for being inadequate for large low-income households and for not addressing high costs after the free allocation. According to the World Health Organisation, six kilolitres of water would provide for the very basic needs for a family of eight, but not sufficient for long term survival or a dignified life. Furthermore, only the most advantaged municipalities have been able to fully offer the programme, leaving poor municipalities with a heavier burden. In order to receive sufficient quantities for dignified living, poor households spend up to one fourth of their available income on water.