Policies are one thing, but it will take every citizen of South Africa to work together toward water-saving to avoid a national water crisis in the future.
The clock is ticking, and South Africa cannot afford to delay the implementation of more aggressive water policies. “To avoid a state of national panic, similar to that which occurred during the energy crisis of 2014 to 2015, the government will have to act immediately. As the forces of climate change, population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation collide in South Africa, it’s vital that policymakers take aggressive measures to restore balance in the water sector.”
This is from a new Water Research Commission report, A Delicate Balance: Water Scarcity in South Africa.
Investment and political will is needed
The authors, Zachary Donnenfeld, Courtney Crooks and Steve Heddon, from the Institute for Security Studies and the Frederick S Pardeen Centre for International Futures, write that it is possible to restore stability to the country's water system, but it will take “significant financial investment and political will".
“Although the 2014-2016 droughts have catalysed a national conversation, and to some extent, brought water security into the policy debate in SA, the drought did not cause water scarcity. What the drought did was highlighting existing vulnerabilities in SA’s water system, and properly frames the magnitude of the challenge of ensuring water security for the country.”
Increase in population growth and the demand for water
While SA is a water-scarce country, there are extant, affordable technologies that government, business and private individuals could employ to help realign supply and demand while ensuring water security for future generations.
The increase in water demand is being driven by a combination of population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes, irrigation expansion, non-renewable electricity generation and a growing manufacturing sector.
Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates a decline in average precipitation levels in the western part of the country, and that the entire south-western region of the country will be at increased risk of severe drought throughout this century.
Renewable water sources
While the January and February rains have offered a brief reprieve, the fact is that SA is still overexploiting its renewable water resources and without additional interventions, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The report details how more than 60% of rivers are over-exploited and only one-third of the country’s leading rivers are in good condition. One-quarter of the country’s river ecosystems are in a critical state. “The consequences of overexploitation may not be evident overnight, but the ultimate losers are the exploited ecosystems and the organisms (including humans) dependent on them for survival and well-being."
In the Western Cape, the most severely affected area, more than 80% of rivers are being over-exploited in the Breede-Gouritz catchment and the Berg-Olifants catchment.
The problem is not limited to the Western Cape though. “Dam levels have been plummeting in the Eastern Cape as well. KwaZulu-Natal is also overexploiting about 50% of the rivers in its main catchment, where dam levels are at about 52%.”
When the ability of a river to efficiently absorb potentially harmful human particulates is diminished, there are substantial consequences of human development including an increased risk of contracting a water-borne disease. “Contaminated water is a significant driver of diarrhoeal disease, which alone is responsible for causing the death of roughly 1 600 Children per day”, according to Unicef.
Specific areas are experiencing a higher degree of water stress than others “, and if any province or municipality were to run out of water completely, it would become a national emergency”, according to the report.
Policy implementation plan for water conservation
Aggressive policies include the implementing of water conservation and demand-reduction measures.
South Africa must use water more efficiently. This can be achieved through a combination of infrastructure repairs, the implementation of new building codes, incentives to install water-efficient appliances and a tiered pricing structure. Another recommendation is to increase the amount of wastewater that is treated and reused.
About 60% of SA’s wastewater is untreated, and a survey of 88 municipalities found more than two-thirds of the wastewater treatment facilities examined did not meet minimum quality control standards.
The knock-on effect of the potential water crisis to the agricultural sector could be immense. This, in turn, could lead to a food shortage, which will affect food availability, leading to a negative effect on our countries economy and if continued to spiral out of control even worse problems.