Water solutions exist but ‘we are hamstrung by the lack of political will’

A general view of Theewaterskloof Dam on January 25 2018 in Villiersdorp. Theewaterskloof Dam is the largest dam in the Western Cape water supply system, but its water levels are seriously low. PIcture: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images
A general view of Theewaterskloof Dam on January 25 2018 in Villiersdorp. Theewaterskloof Dam is the largest dam in the Western Cape water supply system, but its water levels are seriously low. PIcture: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images

South Africa must fundamentally change the way in which it thinks about and manages its water resources, and evaluate new technologies to help to secure the country’s supply for future generations, a panel of speakers told a Gibs forum.

Cape Town could become the first major city in the world to run out of water, and earlier this year the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape were all declared disaster areas due to the debilitating drought in the region.

The economic implications of Day Zero will be felt nationally if the crisis is not averted, as climate change renders rainfall patterns unpredictable and a growing population increasingly demands access to limited water resources.

Scarcity and Abundance

Dr Anthony Turton, environmental adviser and water resource expert said he doesn’t believe South Africa was in the midst of a water crisis, but rather a “crisis of critical thinking”.

“We are locked into a paradigm of scarcity which was developed in the 1850s, and have now run out of surface water that we have been chasing since then.”

The hydraulic system of water resource management in South Africa, which pushes water and rivers around had unintended consequences and had “taken us as far as it can.”

This paradigm considers water as a stock, whereas an alternative view, the paradigm of abundance, considers it as a flux, Turton said.

“Water as a flux means water is an infinitely renewable resource. It has a different value and price, and different qualities are used for different purposes.”

Turton said South Africa would have a sufficient supply if the country were to reuse its total volume of water 1.6 times.

Under his paradigm of abundance, water would act as an enabler for economic development: There is an opportunity in the crisis to upgrade South Africa’s broken infrastructure with new technology, while creating jobs.

“If we don’t define the problem correctly, we’ll never find the right solution. We must turn the dilemma into a series of problems, which we can then start solving. We are going to have to do things differently,” he said.

Water as a business risk

Kevin James, founder and chief executive of the Global Carbon Exchange (GCX) said business was only now beginning to acknowledge water as a business risk.

“Business is beginning to realise that it is not about the price of water or finding alternative sources, but rather the cost of not having water.”

Amit Lev, trade and investment consul at Israel’s trade and economic mission said there was an opportunity in the crisis to find new solutions and become early adopters of new water technologies. “While government is responsible for large projects such as desalination, there is a place for input from the private sector, and this crisis may create new acceptance for innovative technology.”

Turton said while it may seem the country was faced with a dilemma with no apparent solution, “we really need to understand that there is an infinite supply of capital and of technology to clean every kind of water, but these are constrained by policy uncertainty.

“Different tiers and spheres of government are saying different things about water. We need a coherent national policy at all levels which gives the certainty to attract capital and technology to the water space.”

Day zero

Water scarcity is a business as well as a societal risk, James said.

“I see ‘day zero’ as an apocalyptic event. I can’t believe how calm everyone is considering we are staring down the barrel of a gun.”

The Cape Town water crisis had become absolutely acute, and Johannesburg would face the same situation in the next 10 years if more wasn’t done, Turton said.

If day zero, which had been pushed out to July 9, did indeed arrive, people would “spend an inordinate amount of time on collecting water for basic sanitation. Economic productivity will disappear,” Turton said.

“Right now Cape Town is only just surviving, but the economy is dead.”

There was a chasm between local and national government and whose responsibly it was to supply and augment water, James said.

“There is no reason Cape Town should be sitting in the position it is, as this has been a crisis for three to four years now. The solutions exist, but we are hamstrung by the lack of political will. Plans are not put in place and capital is not allocated. It is like playing Russian Roulette with our lives, it is a very scary situation.

“Who is going to take responsibility and how long is it going to take?”

While people have become more mindful and aware of their dependency on water, James said he would like to see more support from the national government and for local government to move faster to implement relief measures.

“We need to fix our water infrastructure at a national level. It is time to put politics aside,” he concluded.

City Press is a media sponsor of the Gibs forums.

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