Mini water wars: People who make decisions are often not the ones affected by water quality problems

19 January 2014

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

Many have speculated that future conflicts will be fought over water availability – for example as argued by Marq de Villiers in his book aptly titled “Water Wars: Is the World’s Water Running Out?” (Phoenix Press 1999).  Similar arguments are evident in Sandra Postel’s “Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last” (WorldWatch, 1999) or in Patrick Bond’s “Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest” (Merlin, 2002).  In the latter Bond correctly notes that “Water management offers [the] South African government and society possibly the most serious contemporary challenge“.  In 1997 the UN Comprehensive Assessment of Freshwater Resources concluded that “The world faces a worsening series of local and regional water quantity and quality [my emphasis] problems.  Water resource constraints and water degradation are weakening one of the resources bases  on which human society is built“.  All of these texts were published more than a decade ago, and similar postulates pre-date them.

Mothulung is not far from Hartbeespoort Dam and draws its water from the river downstream thereof (Photo: Bill Harding).

Mothulung is not far from Hartbeespoort Dam and draws its water from the river downstream thereof (Photo: Bill Harding).

Recent days have seen the reports from South Africa’s Mothulung (Brits, North West Province), a township located downstream of the infamously-polluted Hartbeespoort Dam, where residents went without water for three months – due a simultaneous failure of three pumps?!  (this in a municipal area that has [reported today] underspent its budget by R35 million).  During the associated protests four people lost their lives, all in the name of their right to water.

Oddly, the Minister of Water Affairs, who reportedly lives near Hartbeespoort Dam, a short distance from Brits, was apparently unaware of all this, and all sorts of accusations as to who to blame are doing the rounds.  Perhaps because there was water in her taps she found it hard to comprehend that many of her fellow South Africans had to stand in line for water provided by tankers?  Three months is a long time for all three pumps to be out of service…?

Experts predict that even moderate levels of climate change will impact water scarcity in vulnerable regions, increasing (on a global scale) by 40% the number of people who currently survive on less than 500 cubic meters of water per annum (Nature, Volume 505, January 2014).  In South Africa, the current per capita average is 1200 cubic meters of water per annum (global average = 6500 cub m per annum).  This number was derived from a population of 42 million, so the availability is now, in 2014, proportionately less and equates with a condition of permanent stress (see Figure below, Source WorldBank). According to Muller et al (Water Security in South Africa, 2009) the figure is closer to 1000 cub m per annum) – which is the threshold between scarcity and stress (see Figure 1.9 below).  Yet there is no water crisis in South Africa?  I beg to differ with this grossly-misleading statement.  Factor in water quality limitations…  Factor in failing water treatment infrastructure…  Factor in near-total loss of reservoir management skills…

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 16.27.38

Will there be more deaths over water issues in South Africa?  Wait until quality issues become more prevalent.

Update: Water-related protests have now spread to the town of Pienaar in Mpumulanga.

 

 

 

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