Water scarcity could be bigger problem than energy crunch - analyst

Cape Town - South Africa’s widespread water crisis is not only being caused by a severe drought but by “political apathy”, according to an economist at Nedbank.

Mike Peo, head of infrastructure, energy and telecommunications at Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking, said on Monday that the impact of the drought is being worsened by “massive water losses due to inadequate maintenance of ageing infrastructure and poor management of water distribution networks”.

Peo said that climate change is also “undoubtedly having a real and significant impact” on rainfall in South Africa, commenting that “the droughts we’ve experienced in recent years have been much more severe than usual”. 

The water scarcity crisis been most severe in the Western Cape, and in certain municipalities in the Eastern Cape.

Major dams supplying the Mother City are currently only 37.5% full. At the same time last year, these dams were 61.7% full. 

The city has instituted a usage limit of 87 litres per person per day.

Ad hoc solutions 

Peo said one of the problems complicating an effective response to SA's water scarcity crisis is that solutions are being planned and implemented “in an ad hoc way rather than being driven at national level”.

“Apart from anything else, this means there is little or no integration between the various levels in the water supply system and, importantly, no economies of scale,” he said. 

Peo said that solving the water scarcity problem would be even more challenging than solving the problem of energy supply. 

While national power utility Eskom is responsible for providing energy countrywide, Peo said there is no similar national body responsible for providing water to South Africans. 

“Ownership of and responsibility for managing water supply is fragmented. Water supply networks are also highly complex and more widely distributed than energy supply networks,” he said. 

War on leaks 

In his State of the Nation address in February, President Jacob Zuma said the national average among municipalities for water losses is a hefty 37%. 

Zuma said that ten thousand unemployed youths are being trained as plumbers, artisans and water agents to help repair leaks and water losses as part of War on Leaks initiative.  

Fact checking website Africa Check, however, found it could not verify Zuma’s figures, saying there is “no conclusive data available on how much water SA municipalities lose”.

Meanwhile, Cabinet last week said that “more needs to be done to conserve water”. 

The government has set up an inter-ministerial task team, headed by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, to monitor drought conditions countrywide and offer support. 

The state has so far allocated R74m in relief funding to respond to the drought in the Western Cape. 

Earlier this month the National Disaster Management Advisory Forum said there appears to be no end in sight for the Western Cape drought as the winter rainfall season draws to a close. 

Peo said one way to improve water saving measures, and help combat the drought, would be for the government to enter into public-private partnerships. 

“The private sector is capable of assuming the same role as it has with independent power producers in the energy sector,” he said. “Classic public-private partnerships are used very successfully all around the world for this purpose, but they require active participation from government.”

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