(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.