South African Cities Show Commitment to Accelerate Water Resilience at 2023 UN Water Conference
Building resilience of urban water systems to withstand shocks and stresses has become a key priority for major urban hubs in South Africa, but limitations hinder progress. Photo: Clodagh Da Paixao/Unsplash

South Africa’s cities are economic engines, drawing workers across the country and the continent. Of the country’s 58.8 million population, 68% live in urban areas.

Between 2000 and 2014, urban area in South Africa expanded by 1,464 km2. Population projections suggest that this figure will rapidly increase over the next decade. As South African cities will continue to house much of the population — see Johannesburg City Characterization Report — Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been, and will continue to be, instrumental in their growth.

Water is a central resource for human health, ecosystem sustenance and economic development. Given its centrality, it resonates across the SDGs, and is a turning point for SDGs 6, 11,13 and 15. City governments in South Africa play a crucial role in accelerating SDG related actions given their proximity to the citizens. Building resilience of and to the urban water system to withstand shocks and stresses has become a key priority for major urban hubs in South Africa, but limitations hinder progress.

Highly vulnerable to climate change, South Africa is a water-stressed country with large arid and semi-arid regions. Currently, less than 9% of annual rainfall runs into rivers, and less than 5% recharges groundwater aquifers. Climate projections show a continued rise in temperature, flooding, frequent and longer droughts, and declining annual rainfall. Moreover, degraded water sources, inefficient use of water, aging infrastructure, limited investments, limited capacity and increasing water demand have left many cities facing the growing threat of water scarcity. Changes in water patterns and on-going water challenges pose serious risks to South Africa’s cities.

Broadly, cities will need to rethink how they extend water and sanitation services for growing populations, protect endangered ecosystems, manage watershed risks largely outside city jurisdiction and design for climate resilience, all while having limited access to resources and grappling with governance fragmentation.

To build resilience, cities increasingly need to consider diversifying water sources and changing practices. Resilience measures include investing in rainwater harvesting, harnessing nature-based solutions, advancing sustainable ground water management, increasing recycling and reuse of grey and wastewater for potable and non-potable use, considering fit for purpose supply systems, effective management practices, and water conservation and demand management.

Through the Urban Water Resilience Initiative, WRI is partnering with six African Cities, namely: Johannesburg and Gqeberha in South Africa; Kigali and Musanze in Rwanda; and Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. Together with partners, WRI supports each of the six cities to develop:

  • City Characterization Report that maps key water, climate and development risks that a city faces;
  • Water Profile which provides an assessment of a city’s water resilience. The assessment reviews the city’s practices using the City Water Resilience Framework to identify areas of existing strength and weaknesses and establish a baseline against which progress is measured. Subsequently, the report serves as a strategic action plan with co-developed visions and actions to build water resilience and catalyze implementation of priority actions through various capacity building initiatives and financing to implement projects.

The latest publication from the six cities includes the Gqeberha City Characterization Report, detailing research undertaken to define the water basin and identify factors contributing to its resilience, and the Johannesburg Water Profile, which serves as a strategic plan for the city and stakeholders to build water resilience through implementation of co-developed actions prioritized in the report.

City Characterization Report Promotes Understanding and Evaluation of Gqeberha’s Urban Water System

Gqeberha, the sixth most populous city in South Africa, urgently needs to build water resilience. The city has been facing severe ongoing droughts since 2015, with a total dam storage recorded at 12.7% as of March 10th 2023 — the lowest storage volume recorded for this time of year since 1979.

Koega Dam, one of the major dams supplying water to the city, with approximately 10% of water storage available. Photo: Department of Water and Sanitation, 2022

In addition, the city also faces multiple social, environmental, infrastructural and political challenges, adding more stress to the water system. Without building water resilience, Gqeberha will likely become South Africa’s first major city to reach a “day zero” scenario.

Through the Urban Water Resilience Initiative, WRI and partners conducted a Gqeberha City Characterization assessment to understand the shocks and stresses, identify water system interdependencies and map key infrastructure and governance processes across the city’s water system. The Gqeberha City Characterization Report summarizes the results of this research. Key findings include:

  • Climate change is a key driving force behind the current drought and will likely increase in the future unless action is taken.
  • While climate change is the key force, there are multiple other threats to the resilience of the Nelson Mandala Bay Municipality (NMBM). NMBM’s non-revenue water was recorded at 48.6% in January 2023, with the Real Losses being calculated at 31.8% at the same time. The NMBM is focussed on drastically reducing its NRW to 36%. Reducing NRW is particularly critical for NMBM during the current drought crisis, as Water Conservation Water Demand Management remains the cheapest option to save water. With a Real Loss of 28.5%, there is significant room for conserving water.
  • The city is facing extreme growth pressures due to population growth and urbanization. Limited spatial planning and development results in the construction of informal housing on natural flood plains that cannot withstand urban flooding.
  • A consequence of the uncertainty around water insecurity and drought has been a lack of investment in new industries, affecting the local economy.
  • Environmental degradation is a critical vulnerability for Gqeberha. Overloaded and poorly maintained wastewater treatment works, polluted stormwater runoff, growing informal settlements and solid waste have all contribute to environmental degradation.
  • Unstable political and administrative leadership in the city’s municipality presents an unfavourable condition for building water resilience. 

Building from the initial research, WRI continues to work with the city stakeholders to identify pathways for change and co-develop specific targets and owners for actions towards building water resilience.

Assessing Water Resilience and Developing an Action Plan for Johannesburg

Johannesburg is the economic hub of the southern Africa region. In South Africa alone, Johannesburg is the single largest metropolitan contributor, contributing 16% nationally and 40% to Gauteng’s economy. Considered a global cosmopolitan city with connections to the rest of Africa and the world, Johannesburg grapples with growth pressures and urbanization.

Urban Johannesburg, where climate change threatens the city’s water security, resilience and liveability. Photo: Simon Hurry

Water resilience in Johannesburg continues to be a key area of concern. The Johannesburg City Characterization Report highlights that the city faces an uncertain future with climate change threatening water security, resilience and livability within the city. Significant growth pressures, increasing water demands, informal development, high economic inequality, pollution and environmental degradation, flash flooding, dilapidated infrastructure, delays in the development of new water infrastructure, fragmented governance and limited financial capacity in the sector all contribute to poor water resilience. Furthermore, this major city is not located near a strategic water source and is significantly reliant on surface water from the regional Integrated Vaal River System that is supported by neighboring country of Lesotho through the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

Working together with partners, the City of Johannesburg and city stakeholders, WRI carried out an assessment of water resilience practices through a series of engagements to identify existing strengths and weaknesses and establish a baseline against which progress is measured. Based on the assessment, WRI and partners identified critical challenge areas confronting water resilience for the City of Johannesburg. Together with the city stakeholders, opportunities and discrete corresponding actions were prioritized for building the city’s water resilience. The Johannesburg Water Resilience Profile has identified interventions that build water resilience. The Profile summarizes the assessment process, interventions and outlines potential actions to build water resilience. The prioritized actions are based on a holistic evaluation of anticipated benefits and costs and prioritization of projects identified in the previous step.

It is the objective of this study that Johannesburg takes these priority actions forward, along with support from the various partners. WRI continues to support its partner cities, such as Johannesburg, with implementation of discrete water resilience actions through financing vehicles such as the ACWA Fund, which aims to leverage $5 billion in funding and financing through a blended finance approach to implement strategic and innovative water resilience solutions in 100 African cities by 2032. Cities are further supported through a centralized technical assistance facility, the ACWA Platform, which provides support to prepare projects and adopt enabling policies.

The city of Johannesburg has committed to the following priority actions as part of its Water Resilience Profile:

Challenge areas confronting water resilience in Johannesburg Opportunities for addressing the challenge areas
Limited urban water asset maintenance Promote a proactive mindset that prioritizes maintenance of water assets that is holistic and stakeholder driven.
Inefficient internal governance Encourage behavioural changes to create a collaborative working environment within and between government organizations that promotes transparency, communication, integration and working towards common resilience goals.
Inadequate external stakeholder engagement Strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones by connecting and collaborating with external stakeholders.
Slow uptake of digital water solutions Collate existing data within and between government departments and streamline the generating of information and access to real-time data to enable better decision-making.
Lack of resilience planning Obtain political understanding and support in order to encourage behavioural and mindset changes towards resilience championing and cooperation in planning, processes, procedures and decision-making.
Systemic inequality: Formal vs Informal Open lines of communication and encourage relationship building by collaborating with external stakeholders and the private sector to develop sustainable, equitable and holistic solutions that ensure quality and reliability of service provisions to indigent and vulnerable communities.
Slow uptake of Water Sensitive Design Encourage the widespread promotion and appropriate use of blue-green infrastructure in the development planning process and leverage current initiatives with stakeholders to promote water sensitive design in education and training.
Low utilization of alternative water sources Improve water security and resilience by introducing redundancies in the water supply system through the exploration and use of alternative sources of water, including reuse of treated effluent and acid mine drainage water.
Unsustainable funding & finance Develop a plan for diversifying revenue streams and better management of financial resources through stakeholder engagement with a particular focus on the private sector.


Johannesburg and Gqeberha are part of a rapidly growing list of cities that are showing commitment to building resilience in their urban water systems to meet SDG 6, 11 and 13. Water resilience action plans (also developed in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Kigali and Musanze) provide strategic intervention areas for city leaders and partners to implement. However, investments towards the water and sanitation, water source management and resilience to water related shocks and stresses continue to be vastly thin, with a backlog of $66 billion dollars in sub-Saharan Africa. Innovative blended finance models which bring onboard private, public and the development institutions to invest in a coordinated manner and accelerate implementation is urgently needed. Furthermore, it is critical that financing solutions complement investments in traditional grey infrastructure, linear and centralized water models with a suite of new nature based, decentralized and circular solutions that have a high contribution to resilience.

As a new Water Action Agenda is developed after UN 2023 Water Conference, a greater emphasis should be placed on securing commitment to innovative financing instruments like the ACWA Fund to match the commitments made by African cities and cities from around the world through the Cities Solve, Cities Deliver, Campaign.

This project update originally appeared on

Amanda Gcanga is a Country Lead for the Urban Water Resilience Initiative and Senior Urban Policy Analyst for WRI Africa.

Smita Rawoot is Urban Resilience Lead at WRI.

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