Water blues in Joburg

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

SO JOBURG is losing over a billion rand’s worth of water a year, according to a report on Timeslive (May 13 2015)? Big surprise, that. Really guys! Maybe you don’t have the money to fix underground pipes that are leaking, but how about starting with the small stuff?

I walk every day for 50 minutes (yes, I live in an unfashionable neighbourhood where kids walk to school and women like me can happily walk for exercise and stress relief without exercising anything but the most commonsensical precautions).

Last year, shortly before I went to Denmark on a working trip, I remember changing my route and noting that someone’s water connection was leaking, and had been for some time – there was a trail of luscious green grass bleeding down the pavement from the connection.

Well, I’ve gone back to walking that same route once more for the past few days, and that leak is still there, and has plainly been uninterrupted, judging by the tropical nature of the vegetation around it. In the last two days, I’ve been counting all the other leaks I come across – five so far, all of them giving signs of having oozed for some while.

My first question is, surely the property owners notice? Even if they’re not being charged for this water use (and why wouldn’t they be, if it’s leaking from their connection?), they must notice the damp soil, the moss and the rich green of the algae, if not the grass?

Next is, why don’t the people who read the meters notice? But I think I can toss that thought on the basis of experience. I have had no lid to the connection outside our property for years. Once I asked the meter readers why, instead of rummaging through the overgrown grass to see the meter, they don’t report it and get it fixed; they replied: “It’s not my job.”

So there’s part of the answer for you, Joburg: a culture of ‘jobsworth’ (remember the Jeremy Taylor song about a British council worker singing: “Job’s worth, job’s worth, it’s more than me job’s worth?”) where employees do not move from their little job descriptions, not one inch.

Mind you, we residents aren’t much cop either. I should be reporting those leaks and organising my own smart blue lid, or whatever you call the thing. A disengaged citizenry is bad for city finances for this reason, and it’s why cities need to get their residents to feel a sense of ownership, pride and trust in their urban home.

Joburg’s poor definitely don’t feel a sense of belonging, for obvious reasons; our rich are also worryingly disengaged, loath to get involved in community policing forums, to drive campaigns around city issues and the like.

Water leaks are not the only things you notice when you walk a neighbourhood rather than drive it. Lights, now: one half of my suburb seems to be more in need of light than the other. Day in and day out, no matter what time you pass through these streets, the orange street lights are burning. (Doesn’t it burn you that street lights are on as well as the lights in municipal buildings, deep into the night, while we wrestle with load shedding?)

And vegetation: we have two cuts through the neighbourhood which should allow school children and workers to walk up from the railway station with relative ease. If I was a child, I wouldn’t go near them now; the grass is so high and thick it would swallow an eight-year-old. We’d find his bones years later, trumpeted by banner headlines, and followed by DNA testing and interviews with sobbing relatives.

The cuts provide shelter for pests and a trap for rubbish. Ultimately, this will cost the city.

My suggestion to Joburg Water is to start with small things like this. How much water is being lost to leaks on the highly accessible surface? My suburb is very middle class, not a hugely neglected area, so I’m fairly sure it’s not an isolated case; we are probably losing megalitres this way. Save money on some significant losses like this and who knows? One day soon you may be able to afford some serious replacement of ageing and faltering infrastructure.

Next up, why aren’t you encouraging – indeed, incentivising – people to install rainwater harvesting? Despite the relatively poor rainy season we’ve had, there have been some solid downpours which would have yielded savings in water off the grid if more households had appropriate rainwater harvesting technology.

Then why do you allow the laying of tarred surfaces, for example in townhouse complexes, many built in places quite close to or even in flood lines? Rainwater just pounds off such a surface and funnels into the nearest drain, putting strain on stormwater management; instead, if the surface was, say, gravel, the water could filter through and sink into the water table.

Finally, note to self: you can’t ask other people to be more engaged in civic issues if you aren’t yourself – go and report those leaks!

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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