Shared accountability needed to solve SA’s water issues

2017-05-24 10:16
Berg River above the dam in May 2017. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Berg River above the dam in May 2017. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

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Officially classed as a semi-arid country, South Africa is the 30th driest country in the world. This means that even during a good year, the country’s water resources are stretched.

We cannot deny that available water resources countrywide are at an all-time low due to the current drought, and the stark reality is that, while wetter conditions were expected, and realised in some areas, over the summer months as a result of the forecasted La Nina, the rain alone cannot solve all of the country’s constraints or secure enough resources for the future. 
 
The impact of the drought has certainly been exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenomena and subsequent extreme weather conditions. However, we cannot merely blame the drought for the present water status. In truth, droughts move in cycles – where every decade or two the whole water system goes into ‘crisis’. Also, this sense of crisis that we are feeling at present has further been intensified by two fundamental problems: firstly, demand for water services has grown at a faster pace than the infrastructure, and secondly, that people use water as though they are living in a water-rich country, with little regard for conservation.
 
So where to from here?...
 
We are getting important governing structures right

The South African government has certainly realised the importance of both creating access to and protecting available water resources – where the duality of these priorities creates another layer of complexity. 
 
However, in recognition of this and to bring about effective change, in recent years the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has placed significant focus on increasing the country’s water storage capacity, improving water infrastructure networks, establishing a water-use license or authorisation process, as well as the Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) to regulate and manage water resources under the DWS. 
 
Although some areas still face preceding challenges, and in other areas progress remains painfully slow; each of these steps remains crucial to improving overall water services within the country.
 
A keen example of the influence of these processes at work is that the DWS is able to more accurately measure consumptions rates – down to individual premises or fixed connections – and based thereon, implement water restrictions, as well as impose violation penalties. 

This approach towards restrictions and penalties can already be seen in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, so far – and is important as a strong-handed approach is needed to guard and govern our remaining water resources.  
 
We do need clarity on ‘the national and regional plans for water and sanitation infrastructure’

Water and sanitation is one of the cornerstone pillars of the National Development Plan (NDP) and – given the crucial importance of this pillar to the inclusive socio-economic growth that the NDP aspires to achieve – it certainly warrants more strategic and dedicated focus. 

Ideally such a plan should look at regional, national and even local water infrastructure networks to see where the existing gaps are. Such gaps may be geographical – across the large underdeveloped areas across the country – or operational, as much of the existing infrastructure is aged, weathered and in dire need of maintenance to ensure maximum efficiencies due to increased demand and the stresses of extreme weather and temperatures changes that the country has been experiencing. 

There needs to be a countrywide culture change towards water and shared accountability

Governing water reserves and increasing investment in water infrastructure are both crucially important moves by the DWS, however, we need more than government-led strategies if we are going to replenish our water reserves immediately and secure future reserves. We need to entrench a countrywide culture change towards water consumption and conservation; not only to secure future water reserves for the next few years beyond the current drought – but for future generations. 
 
There’s no denying that corporate South Africa has a critical role to play here in a leadership capacity; to influence water management strategies at a national level, because of their profile and their ability to influence the agenda. Also, any company operating in South Africa must realise that water is a business critical risk that needs to be managed due to the potential detrimental impact that water cuts or water-shedding can have on their production – and that this could have a yielding impact on their business. 

However, it’s also important to note that corporate South Africa is not the leading consumer of water – citizens are. Currently among ordinary South Africans there is already a fairly decent sense of awareness of the value of water in South Africa – compared to many other countries where perhaps they are not used to water shortages.

Having said this, while citizens are quick to check business and industry on consumption or whether their operations may affect regional water resources, for many citizens there still only seems to be a change in their own consumption behaviour during times of water outages, cuts or where harsh penalties are enforced. We therefore need to keep up the awareness – to affect nationwide behaviour change and further improve our conservation of water both from a quality and quantity perspective.
 
If the current drought has shown us anything of great value, it’s that we cannot afford to wait for the weather to change – or for the environment to heal itself. There is no man-made intervention that can reverse the effects of the drought or the El Niño. However, with adopting more sustainable approaches to using and managing this resource, we can avoid harsher water restrictions, or even water shedding. 

Succeeding in water conservation and management to in future secure this invaluable resource will take input from society, the private sector and the public sector, alike – and a strong will of shared accountability.

- Greg Matthews is director of WSP Environment & Energy in Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

* For the latest news about the drought, please visit our special report

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