More than a third of South Africa's drinkable water is being lost unnecessarily, and there's very little that can be done about it in the short term.
Professor Neil Armitage, of The University of Cape Town's Department of Civil Engineering and Deputy Director of the Future Water research institute told HuffPost that 'unaccounted for water' is currently running at an average of around 36 percent in the country.
"The way the water system works is that a city will buy water, then sell it, and the discrepancy between what is bought and what is sold, is what is called 'unaccounted for water'. Much of it is via leaking pipes, some isvia municipal services like watering parks which might not be metered, but a significant – though unknown - portion is via theft.
"Recently Ethekwini did a whole overhaul of their water distribution system to replace old and cracked pipes.As they did this, they discovered that stolen water was as serious an issue as leaking pipes. Theft in general is a major problem in SA – and could be a substantial proportion of the reported values of 36 percent losttogether with the problem of inadequate water infrastructure maintenance."
Most pipe materials, Armitage explains, have a lifespan of around 40 years, "but there are many pipes in South Africa that are over 100 years old. However, whilst cities are under pressure to replace old pipes, it's hard to justify putting replacing pipes in rich areas when there are areas where there are no pipes at all. On the other hand, the current water crisis in Cape Town has highlighted the importance of maintaining water infrastructure across the whole city although, as it happens, Cape Town, is by far the best performing city in South Africa and amongst the top-performing cities in the world in this regard, where unaccountable water sits at around 15 percent."
The solution to managing water demand in Cape Town lies in the 'leafy suburbs' that, he says, use some 65 percent of the city's water in a 'normal' year – with a large proportion going to water gardens and filling swimming pools. This is the reason why the municipal authorities have been targeting residential users during the current terrible drought – the worst on record; far worse than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Meantime, "what must we do to those stealing water? Threaten people with jail, if they are trying to steal water because they don't have any? Given the inequities of South African society at present, it would appear that the real need at this moment is to control high-end users – corporate users and high net-worth individualswho feel entitled to unrestricted water use."
Armitage also says that the rumour that dry water pipes explode is untrue, but that the reality is even more grim.
"If you depressurise the water system, you run the risk of polluted groundwater getting into the systembecause all pipes have cracks somewhere. This means that when you repressurise them, you run the risk of having severely polluted groundwater [in the pipes], which may contain actual sewerage. This will require special management by the municipality to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases."