So little water, so much poor management of it

17 November 2015

South Africa needs an infrastructure revolution and a change in values if it is to avoid being left high and dry, writes Mmusi Maimane

THEY say countries should never waste a crisis. We need to see South Africa’s drought and water shortages as such an opportunity.

Our water system has reached a point where it could limit economic growth and development, which will therefore affect our social wellbeing and stability. This applies to both the quantity and quality of water available to us. Right now, we need to urgently and strategically manage our transition from a demand-driven to a supply-constrained economy.

With respect to quantity, we are experiencing a rapid increase in demand coupled with a steady decrease in supply. Population growth, immigration and changing consumption habits are pushing up demand. Supply is falling due to crumbling, poorly managed infrastructure aggravated by a shortage of engineers; an El Niño event; and a climate change trend making South Africa a hotter, drier country. This constitutes a looming crisis, despite Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s protestations to the contrary.

To make matters worse, the quality of water is also declining. Our municipal waste-water system, which treats and recycles used water, is under extreme pressure, with as many as 90% of waste-water treatment works dysfunctional. Urban and industrial effluent runs into our rivers, while acid mine drainage and the large amounts of hazardous waste that we are unable to deal with are further contributors to this problem.

It is generally agreed that at least a third but possibly up to two-thirds of our national stored water resources (in dams and watercourses) is eutrophic, meaning that it has dangerously elevated levels of nutrients that cause blue-green algae to flourish. This, in turn, produces chemicals toxic to our health. So pollution and waterborne diseases are also risking our supply.

The political and social risks of this deteriorating situation should be clear. Economic growth — and thus job creation — will be increasingly limited, leading to social instability. This will be exacerbated by rising food prices due to our increasing inability to withstand periodic droughts; our re-allocation of water from agriculture in an attempt to prevent job losses in more labour-absorbing sectors of our economy; and the general desiccation of our land due to overuse and poor farming practices.

Water insecurity will also drive energy insecurity, since energy production relies on water. Of course, water can be “imported” by means of food and energy imports that used water in their production cycle, but that option is becoming less likely because of our balance-of-payments deficit, a situation aggravated by our government’s penchant for presidential jets and the like.

As ever, the poor (particularly women and children, to whom it generally falls to collect water for cooking and washing) will suffer disproportionately — and are least able to adapt, move, or buy their way out of the problem. They are also afflicted by the least competent municipalities.

This is the bad news.

The good news is that a lot can be done to reverse this dismal state of affairs, avert the looming disaster and put South Africa back on the road to water security. Says water expert Professor Anthony Turton: “The transition can be managed, but it will require a carefully formulated strategy, driven by a policy that is based on the best available science, held together by sound political leadership embedded in robust institutions.”

Our challenge is to significantly boost water supplies, massively improve efficiency of use and increase our resilience to drought — all while ending the injustices of water provision in the past and ensuring the integrity of our ecology.

There is massive waste and inefficiency in our water systems. Wastage is due to poorly maintained infrastructure, with definitely at least a third but quite possibly up to two-thirds of all reticulated water being lost to failing infrastructure and theft. This means there is massive scope to boost our supply, but we need to channel resources — our best engineering talent and funds — to reverse the infrastructure decline.

This waste is compounded by the inefficient use of water by various sectors. We need to identify the sectors with the most potential for improvement. Here, the agricultural sector offers the greatest gains, because it uses 63% of our water for irrigation. Land management on farms has a major impact on water availability and quality. Soil erosion, for example, changes the flow of our rivers and reduces the storage capacity of our dams, resulting in the need for expensive water filtration and treatment systems. Poorly applied fertiliser and pesticides run off into rivers, polluting our water and killing aquatic life. Clearing alien vegetation is also a cost-effective, job-creating way to increase water supply on farms, because invasive plants use more than twice the water of indigenous vegetation.

Essentially, we need not only an infrastructure revolution, but also one of values. We need to recognise that our economy — and, ultimately, our wellbeing — are reliant on our national ecology, and start to treat our natural environment with the respect and care it deserves. Properly cared for and managed, our wetlands, rivers and organic-rich soil purify our water and provide resilience in times of drought. We need to restore, respect and protect our ecosystems. This requires strong leadership, which we’re not seeing right now.

Similarly, there is vast scope within our manufacturing processes and energy production for water saving, not only through efficiency gains, but through fundamentally changing the way we produce, consume and live. Once again, this begins with good governance.

As in so many other areas of state management, we know what needs to be done, but are falling short on implementation. As Mokonyane said in an interview with Chris Barron last weekend: “If you ask me, we need more bodies with the knowledge and capability, we need better management and better planning. Having the right people in the right place with the ability to do the job.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. All I would add is: “And with the government clearly having failed to rise to this challenge, it is time for a change of leadership, before we are left high and dry.”

•Maimane is the DA leader

(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times, 15 November 2015, page 18.  Republished with permission of the DA and the Sunday Times).

 

DA has quality of SA’s water resources on its radar

15 November 2015

Aquatic plants are very important stabilizers of waterbodies (Photo: Bill Harding)

Water quality is fundamentally important to South Africa’s future (Photo: Bill Harding)

As someone who has beaten the water quality drum for many years (search this blog for ‘water crisis’ articles) it is always pleasing when politicians recognize the pivotal role that water quality holds for South Africa.  This topic is currently receiving increased attention due to the very severe drought conditions currently being experienced.

The Democratic Alliance has been somewhat quiet on water quality issues since the days when Gareth Morgan held the portfolio.  Today, however, the Sunday Times (November 15, 2015, pg 18, see following post) carried an opinion piece by no less a DA member than its leader, Mr Mmusi Maimane, entitled “So little water, so much poor management of it“.  To my knowledge, addressing such a topic is a first for any leader of a political party in this country!

The article reads, inter alia, that “[to] make matters worse, the quality of water is also declining. Our municipal waste-water system…is under extreme pressure, with as many [sic] as 90% of waste-water treatment works dysfunctional“.  Furthermore, “…possibly up to two-thirds of our national stored water resources in dams and watercourses is eutrophic“.  Here Mr Maimane is referring to the legacy of inaction on the level of wastewater treatment required to prevent South African reservoirs from becoming eutrophic, a legacy that persists from the previous regime of government (see review article here for details).

Mr Maimane correctly notes that, the dire circumstances notwithstanding, there is still hope for mitigation.  What remains is for the ANC government to stop denying that there is a crisis, stop focussing solely on water quantity and to move demonstrably towards the application of more appropriate science and technology for the management of South African surface waters.

(Bill Harding is a South African aquatic scientist with a long history of experience in eutrophication and toxic algae.  He is a Certified Lake Manager – a USA certification and is the only person so registered in South Africa).

The looming water crisis, and its causes

11 November 2015

(Author: Anthony Turton)

Sitting on the Horns of a Dilemma: Water as a Strategic Resource in South Africa

South Africa is a water-constrained country with a vital need to conserve, manage, and expand its limited water resources as efficiently as possible. Since 1994, however, strategic planning has deteriorated, along with operational efficiency. Under the supposed imperatives of ‘transformation’, skilled engineering and other professional staff have been driven out of water boards (responsible for bulk water supply) and municipalities (charged with local reticulation and often also with waste management).

Municipalities are now discharging around 4 billion litres of untreated or partially treated sewage into the country’s rivers and dams every day. The Government refuses to admit the extent to which water quality has deteriorated, and a public health crisis now looms. Various reforms are feasible, but the ruling party shows little willingness to allow practical reality to prevail over its transformation ideology.

That water constraint

South Africa’s rainfall is half the global average, making it a water-scarce country. The first proposal for the construction of large dams was made in the 1870s.

In 1886 Thomas Bain, a civil engineer in the public roads department in the Cape, followed up with a book on ‘water finding’ and‘dam-making’, which urged state intervention in the construction of hydraulic (water-driven) infrastructure as an essential foundation for economic growth and social cohesion.

When South Africa became a republic in 1961, one of the State’s first major projects was the creation of a scheme to transfer water from one river basin to another. This was achieved via the Orange-Fish-Sundays scheme, which transfers water from the Gariep Dam in the Free State to arid areas in the Eastern Cape. This initiative was specifically designed not only to address the water challenge in parts of the Karoo but also to restore investor confidence after the Sharpeville shootings in 1960.

In 1970 came the report of the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters. This report warned that South Africa’s economic development would always be water-constrained unless a coherent plan was implemented by the State to overcome this obstacle. In response, the Government imposed a tax on the bulk sale of water (the first of its kind in the world) to fund a new body called the Water Research Commission. This commission was given the task, in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), of developing the science and engineering technology needed to address the country’s endemic water scarcity and so promote economic growth and prosperity.

Working from this foundation, South Africa became a global leader in the management of water. This allowed the country to develop the most diversified economy in the world compared with other nations with similar climatic regimes. One of its great achievements in the 1970s was the CSIR’s development of the first sewage recycling technology.

This cutting- edge innovation was put into operation in Windhoek (in what was then South West Africa and is now Namibia) in response to the absolute water scarcity in the city. This development was also part of a wider strategic initiative to harness water from a multiplicity of sources. South Africa thus became globally recognised for its ability to achieve economic growth and development despite its fundamental water constraint, which was largely overcome through high levels of technical ingenuity.

The National Water Act of 1998

After the transition to democracy in 1994, the new Government adopted the National Water Act of 1998 as one of its first ‘transformation’ interventions. This removed riparian and other common-law rights to water and made the State the public trustee of the nation’s water resources. It also gives the State the power to decide on ‘the equitable allocation of water in the public interest’, in order to address past racial and gender discrimination.

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