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).

 

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