Skip to content

The Weaponisation of Water – are South Africa’s newest mafias draining us dry?


The Weaponisation of Water – are South Africa’s newest mafias draining us dry?

Water has always been both a weapon and a casualty of war. Reports of dams being deliberately destroyed, for example, date back to 200 BC and the Battle of Wei River in China. More recently, ongoing attacks in Ukraine have seen dams and other elements of water infrastructure deliberately targeted.

The weaponisation of water, coupled with creeping climate change, means water is destined to become an ever more vulnerable resource – even in countries unused to water scarcity and cyclical droughts.

As far back as 1995, the then-vice-president of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, offered this dire prediction: “Many of the wars in this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.”

Events since then would seem to be proving him right.

And yet none of that can be used to justify why in South Africa, a country that is, in the generally accepted understanding of the term, not “at war”, there is such a crippling and ever-worsening water crisis.

Rampant crime, ongoing service delivery protests and other forms of social unrest leave me unwilling to describe us as a peaceful country. Still, we’re not actively involved in the kind of conflict currently being experienced in Ukraine, Gaza, Israel and, more recently, Iran.

And yet our water problems are almost as severe.

Johannesburg in particular has been hit by paralysing water shortages in recent weeks and as I write, many areas (comprising up to half the city’s residents) are still without water for many hours every day. Some don’t have any water at all for days at a time.

And yet Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda continues to mostly deny that there’s a crisis. On the odd occasion when he does admit to a problem, he blames short-term issues such as a recent heatwave, a surge in demand, or a lightning strike at a water pumping station.

The reality of the situation is unfortunately far less convenient.

Expert opinion is that there are two root causes of the problem: unmaintained and failing infrastructure, and electrical outages at pump stations caused, for the most part, by load-shedding. 

“Overall ineptitude, deficiency of transparency and accountability, as well as little to no political will, has exacerbated the ever-expanding water crisis,” says Anja du Plessis, an associate professor and water expert at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

“The continued dysfunctional and inept state of local municipalities, ongoing lack of service delivery, and poor and uninformed water governance are the primary factors of concern.”

This view is supported by a recent report in News24 by Sipho Masondo. He writes that Johannesburg’s water and sanitation infrastructure is on the brink of collapse, but that a budget deficit in the region of R64 billion means there’s no money to replace or refurbish it.

He goes on to say that the city has been unable to meet the required 1.5% renewal rate of assets due to funding limitations, leading to an alarming 59% loss in infrastructure value. The situation has been exacerbated by mismanagement and the “diversion of funds to areas not related to infrastructure renewal.”

Certain individuals’ back pockets, perhaps?

Is it just me, or is anyone else getting a distinct sense of déjà vu right about now? I can’t be the only one drawing parallels in my mind between our more recent water crisis and the electricity catastrophe that’s plagued South Africa to a lesser or greater degree since 2008.

Especially when you read the recent statement from Johannesburg Water, calling on residents and businesses to cut their water use by 10% by fixing leaks, taking shorter showers, and collecting rainwater for outdoor use.

It bears an uncanny resemblance to advice issued by Eskom to reduce consumption of electricity by 10% by switching off geysers and pool pumps during peak times and wearing warmer clothes indoors instead of turning on your electric heaters.

Surely, not many businesses in the world actively want you to use less of the product they produce (or don’t produce, as the case may be…)

The real tragedy of the situation, however, is the fact that what would appear to be South Africa’s favourite motto – “Never let a good crisis go to waste” – is once again being applied with devastating effect with the rise of what’s being dubbed the “Water Mafia.”

An article in Engineering News says, “The South African water sector is under siege. In a disturbing parallel to the notorious ‘construction mafias’, water or tanker mafias – criminal syndicates thriving on the country’s water crisis – are sabotaging water infrastructure for profit. These groups are capitalising on government failures, ensuring taps remain dry, and creating a state of dependence on their costly services.”

The situation is not just limited to Johannesburg. A statement on the website of the Democratic Alliance reads, “It has become clear that the ‘water mafia’ is quickly making its way into the city [eThekwini], allegedly sabotaging critical water infrastructure to extend lucrative government contracts for the provisioning of water tankers and profit from the ongoing crisis. In other areas, there have been reports of unmarked and privately-owned trucks selling water obtained from municipal taps to residents at extortionate prices.”

It goes on to say, “It has become clear that there is a concerted drive by criminal elements in the province to weaponise water for their own illicit gains. The total collapse of the eThekwini government, under the helm of the ANC-EFF doomsday coalition, has left the door wide open for these criminal syndicates to abuse vulnerable and desperate residents.”

Unfortunately, reports like this cannot be dismissed as one political party’s attempts to discredit the other. So-called “water mafias” are very much a real presence in a growing number of areas.

Anthony Turton, a University of the Free State water expert, agrees with the DA’s accusations that these mafias deliberately damage public water infrastructures to extend lucrative contracts with municipalities.

He also alleges they source water from unregulated dams and rivers, thus bypassing essential quality controls, and posing serious health risks to the people they claim to be helping. The cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal was linked to these practices, throwing much-needed attention on the R85.3 million the Tshwane municipality spent on private water tankers in 2023. 

So far, no direct links between high-ranking public officials and the water mafias have been established, but water rights activist Ferrial Adams believes the ties cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Sadly, the allegations about similar ties between Eskom and top-tier government officials mean most South Africans feel it’s only a matter of time before someone joins up all the dots and reveals the full trail of well-greased palms that connects people in power with the tanker tyrants.

The problem, unlike the water from our bulk suppliers, shows no signs of going away any time soon.

Adams believes South Africans can expect more pipe bursts, leaks and “water-shedding” in the foreseeable future.

Anthony Turton agrees, saying “It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue. These [criminal] elements thrive on chaos, and they need to be investigated with urgency.”

With taps running dry and tanker mafias running rampant, urgent investigation AND remedial action are needed. A reliable water supply is a basic human right – we can no longer afford to get wrong.