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Lack of water is the root of all evil

19 December 2013, 10:00

By Allen Tshautshau

In humanity, water is one of the fundamental universal needs. It is a symbol of life that which we cannot live without. If scarce and unavailable, it affects the sociology of communities, agriculture, and the overall growth of the economy. Severe shortages of this precious resource may lead to:

·         - Food insecurity, and an Increasing food imports  

·        - Socioeconomic instability

·         - Access, benefit and sharing conflicts

Water is not only essential for economic and welfare purposes, it also plays a significant role to South Africa’s diverse cultural groups, beliefs, religions, and expressions have close ties with water.

·         In Christianity, it is used in baptism, as a sign of reawakening, and as a symbol of acceptance of the Christian way of life

·         In Hindus, water is associated with spiritual cleansing

·         In Judaism, it is a symbol of restoration of ritual purity

·         In various African religions, it is a symbol of life, power and healing

Whether in religion or social development, it is quite evident that water is essential to satisfying our daily needs. Ironically, the rapid growing human population has exerted tremendous pressure on the available water resources.

South Africa is now one of the driest in the world, with very limited freshwater resources. Its annual rainfall is 460 mm per annum, which is variable and unevenly distributed. Currently, the country relies on more than 500 dams for the retention and the supply of water to its various sectors. Overall, these dams provide about 10 200 million m3 of water per annum, which is not sufficient if one compares it to the 13 227 million m3 of freshwater that is currently available per annum.

In the year 2000, the total national annual water demand was 12 871 million m3, which is just 356 000 m3 less than the total amount of freshwater available in SA annually. Given this apparent mismatch, it is doubtful whether the current water infrastructure will suffice to cater for the country’s projected water demands.

It is of great concern that the demand for water in SA far exceeds the supplying capacity. Hydrological experts speculates severe water shortfall by the 2025. With a 1700 cm3 freshwater availability per person, the country is faced with serious challenges in its water services sector. Of these, is the burden caused by the unscrupulous acts of pollution by various industries, and domestic users. Millions of litres of partially treated sludge are disposed into various water resources across the country.

“By 2015, 80% of South Africa's fresh water resources will be so badly polluted that no process of purification available in the country will be able to make it fit for consumption”- Environment and Conservation Association, 2010.

Be that as it may, water is considered a human right in SA. To address disparities in the access to safe water by all South Africans legislative and policy frameworks have been formed, such as:

·         Water Services Act of 1997

·         National Water Act of 1998 

·         National Water Resource Strategy of 2004

The above framework gives the country the statutory obligation of providing clean water, and decent sanitation to its citizens. To date, more than 90% of SA’s population now have access to safe water compared to 59% in 1994.

However, despite achieving such a milestone, new challenges have emerged. To begin with, the implementation of the current policies is lagging behind. Apparently, if new challenges arise national authorities channel the resources into commissioning studies or the drafting of new policies rather than addressing the challenges under question pragmatically.

Secondly, there is a shortage specialized skills to manage, and to effectively implement the policies in the water services sector.

Thirdly, the majority water treatment infrastructure in the country is outdated, and failing to meet the minimum required standards. To date, the country’s water treatment plants are in a critical condition. As a result, partially treated water end up in our freshwater systems, and thus causing has health risk to vulnerable communities.

On the other hand, politicians continue to give people empty and unrealistic promises about accelerating the rate at which water services will be delivered in South Africa, something that has agitated the majority of the SA citizens.  Since 2009, there have been a staggering number of public service delivery protests that includes the demand for water.

Why is lack water the root of all evil? Well, there is no doubt that water is the driving force of our livelihood, and the economy. Therefore, if lacking it can potentially exacerbate civil unrest.

The post 1994 neoliberal water services authorities have persued for deregulation and privatization policies. This move has to a certain extent deprived water access to some of SA’s chronically poor communities. Indeed, the majority of these communities have limited access water. The above policies have been unpopular to many South Africans, and have triggered mass protests by affected parties.

For many of these protesters access to water still remains inaccessible, unaffordable, and unsafe. Consequently, there has been some horrifying numbers of cholera infections associated with water shortages.

 There is a close link between water and coal power generation. Therefore, lack of water affects the electricity prices, and this severally impacts on various economic sectors. This is a potential cause for industry closures and jobs losses.

The majority rural community rely on subsistence farming. Long dry weather spells, and lack of access to irrigation schemes leads to the decline in food security in these communities, and exacerbate poverty.

The lack of access to water also somehow leads to criminal acts. There have been numerous cases of water theft in South Africa. At a small scale, water meters are being stolen on a daily basis across the country. On the other hand, thousands of households and small scale farmers (to a lesser extent) are allegedly stealing water from the suppliers in order to fulfil their needs. This is not a justification of these acts but an attempt to highlight the insufficient provision of water has negative impacts to vulnerable community.

- Allen Tshautshau, Environmental Control Officer and South African National Antarctic Programme’s Deputy Team Leader at Marion Island

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