Managing water

2008-04-11 00:00

Opening a project at Richards Bay last weekend, MEC for Local Government Michael Mabuyakhulu spoke of the urgent need for education about water conservation. Perhaps he too is alarmed at the bizarre sight of suburban householders hosing down their driveways; or the construction of water-hungry golf estates in the 30th driest country in the world.

There are environmentally sound reasons why people should factor conservation into their daily lives. But the overall future of the country’s water resources lies squarely in the hands of the government, especially as the state is now appropriately their sole custodian. Only the eastern and southern coasts of South Africa receive reliable rainfall. Water demand exceeds supply in 80% of the country’s catchment areas and shortfalls are countered by costly transport. Even so, many people live below the subsistence level of 25 litres per day.

Access to an adequate supply of clean water is the right of every South African, but there is evidence that the government is treating this challenge with unwarranted complacency. At the moment there is no general supply crisis, although warnings are being sounded about the future. Investment in capital works and maintenance is puny compared with the amount thrown at the arms deal; and the government argues that development should de-pend on a self-funded infrastructure agency.

Equitable access to an essential resource should surely be government’s direct responsibility. The complex issues involved are scientific, political and administrative in nature, but there is growing concern that they are beyond the capacity of available management. Experienced hydrologists and their institutional memory are rapidly being lost. They are not being replaced by enough committed, quality staff.

A recent survey of water resource management came to the alarming conclusion that officials are not sufficiently well informed to know what questions to ask. And the ministry re-sponsible no longer conducts any significant research. In the case of power generation there is a variety of options, but until desalination is viable there is only one source of water. The current public preoccupation with the skills deployed at Eskom should also include those responsible for the nation’s water supply.

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