The drought that we experienced in the Western Cape and other parts of the country has entrenched an awareness of water availability in our minds, with most of us unlikely to return to the "old normal" of water use in the coming years.
It took a severe crisis to get us to the point where we think differently about something that we have accepted as a given for most of our lives.
As people across the globe celebrate World Water Day on 22 March, it is important to reflect on the fact that there is another side to water availability, which many of us have not yet been compelled to think about, which we take for granted every time we open our taps: access to good-quality drinking water that matches global standards.
Ironically, we drive past polluted rivers every day without even noticing their poor health any more.
Even when we are disgusted by the sight and smell, or saddened by the fact that we cannot use many of our streams and rivers for recreational activities, we're not driven to action and change, because the state of those streams and rivers do not directly impact on our lives; it’s not what comes out of our taps.
Water quality has a much more direct and far-reaching impact on our everyday lives than what we realise.
Most notably, it impacts on water quantity as it reduces the amount of water available for consumption without extensive and costly treatment, a problem exacerbated during drought.
Producers relying on river water for irrigation increasingly face push-back from the export market, or the additional costs of treatment before irrigation.
Routine maintenance and upgrades to treatment plants, and direct discharge as surface runoff becomes a challenge to an increasing number of financially-constrained municipalities, leading to a growing concern that micro-pollutants such as endocrine disruptors, and micro-organisms pass through poorly-maintained treatment facilities.
And with water from the polluted stream or river we drive past every day seeping into the ground, these pollutants are transferred to the groundwater, which supplies our boreholes and increasingly also our bulk water resources for drinking water.
Of course our rural and poorer communities are probably most affected by these problems.
Deteriorating water quality has become a major issue and necessitates actions such as identifying sources of pollution, behavioural changes to stop the pollution, innovative technologies that may include nature-based solutions to rectify the situation, with increasing emphasis on socially acceptable approaches.
We recognise the value of international experience, technology and management skills in our efforts to address the complex challenges associated with providing water of sufficient quantity and quality.
However, we are also aware of the wealth of traditional and cutting-edge technologies amongst South Africans that can make a contribution in this regard.
We need to embrace opportunities to forge partnerships that combine local and international expertise.
This should help reduce the instances where efforts to apply international technological advances fail under local conditions, whether it is due to not being appropriate for local conditions, shortage for replacement parts, or due to a lack of local skills for routine maintenance.
Co-designing of interventions also helps to overcome social barriers to uptake of new technologies and to mitigate conflict.
Universities, in particular, are spaces where partnerships need to be forged to find optimal and lasting solutions for complex water-related challenges.
It was with this in mind that Stellenbosch University (SU) formed a partnership with Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, one of Europe’s leading applied research organisations, to establish the Fraunhofer Innovation Platform in Stellenbosch.
The Engineering, Sciences and AgriSciences faculties at SU and four institutes that are part of the Fraunhofer Water Systems Alliance (SysWasser), in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Energy Alliance, will work together in the fields of water and energy to develop and implement technologies that are appropriate to Southern Africa.
Through the Stellenbosch University Water Institute (SUWI), which acts as the local coordinator of this platform, this network will be extended to other disciplines such as community health and social sciences.
This newly-established Innovation Platform is the result of previous projects on water quality and energy between SU and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
One such project, SafeWaterAfrica, is a good example of how local and international technology and expertise can be combined into workable solutions.
It led to the development of a decentralised water treatment system for rural and peri-urban areas.
A modular water system was developed in collaboration with two local companies, Virtual Consulting Engineers and Advance Call, for pre-treatment of polluted water before final treatment with a carbon-based electrochemical oxidation technology developed by our Fraunhofer partners.
Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (ERWAT) provided the site for a demonstration unit, which is now used for further development towards water-reuse, with the potential to be also utilized as a facility to train technical staff.
While we continue to look for innovative solutions through partnerships between universities, research institutes and companies, it is essential that public perception over water quality changes.
We need to increase awareness to stop the "day zero" of water quality creeping closer.
This requires significant education efforts in all our communities and the best place to start urgently is in our homes.
- Gideon Wolfaardt and Marlene de Witt are affiliated with the Stellenbosch University Water Institute.