Water Shortages in South Africa and the Rise of ‘Tanker Mafias’

Estimated read time 3 min read

Profound water shortages are plaguing various parts of South Africa, leaving taps dry for extended periods, and criminal syndicates, known as ‘tanker mafias,’ are capitalizing on this crisis. Major metropolitan areas in Gauteng, as well as parts of Durban and Cape Town, are grappling with severe water supply challenges, with households enduring days, and in some instances, weeks without water.

The deteriorating situation prompted intervention from the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, who introduced a new initiative called “water-shifting,” akin to Eskom’s load shedding.

While many authorities and water regulators in South Africa have attributed the water crisis to factors like load shedding, climate change, capacity constraints, and excessive residential consumption, experts contend that poor governance is the root cause. They argue that authorities have neglected the maintenance and improvement of water infrastructure.

Water expert and University of the Free State professor Dr. Anthony Turton highlighted the growing influence of ‘tanker mafias,’ particularly in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN). These groups are accused of sabotaging water infrastructure to extend their contracts with municipalities, which hire them to provide water tankers to communities in need.

What’s alarming is that these tankers often compromise on water quality because they are paid per tanker load, drawing water directly from dams and rivers, bypassing quality control and clean supply points.

Turton emphasized the urgent need for an investigation into these elements that thrive on chaos. A similar trend is observed in sewage infrastructure, where mafias destroy sewage works to benefit from sewage pump rentals.

Around 50% of water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure. This crisis is primarily attributed to institutional failures, especially at the local municipal level. Dr. Turton noted that despite numerous warnings and signs of failure, municipalities have shown they cannot rectify the situation.

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The magnitude of this issue necessitates a resolution. Failure to address it could lead to external interventions, such as legal action or even the suspension of the Constitution through popular uprisings and extrajudicial means.

To avert such scenarios in the short term, the government has introduced ‘water-shifting,’ a measure designed to prevent the total collapse of local water systems. Similar to load shedding in the energy sector, ‘water-shifting’ seeks to keep some segments of the population content and minimize the potential for street protests. However, it is essential to address the broader issues concerning South Africa’s deteriorating water infrastructure to ensure a sustainable and reliable water supply for all.

Mandla Ndlovu

Meet Mandla Ndlovu, our Editor-in-Chief at ZimScribes Online Magazine. With a passion for storytelling and a keen eye for diverse narratives, Mandla curates and leads our team in delivering captivating and thought-provoking content that celebrates the rich tapestry of Zimbabwe's culture, people, and experiences

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