We must act now to turn the drought crisis around


South Africa is in the middle of a water crisis.

You would assume that, after repeated warnings over the past few years by industry stakeholders, we would have changed our attitudes, heeded the call to preserve water and perhaps have invested in future-proofing the water needs of the country.

You would be wrong.

Unlike electricity generation and supply, which requires copious investment of capital by power utility companies, water is considered to be a free resource that can be tapped from a river, the sea or a borehole.

Even better, rainfall is the primary source of this resource.

Throw consumer and rights groups into the fray, and the clamour of entitlement to this resource grows loud.

Is it really necessary, then, for consumers to start paying tariffs for a resource that is considered to be a basic right?

These attitudes typically sum up the mindset of South African water consumers.

But this is already changing, especially in the wake of a crippling drought in the Western Cape.

Sadly, though, we are learning the hard way.

For perspective, each person in the Western Cape is currently allowed to use only 87 litres of municipal water a day for drinking and washing.

Having used 243 million cubic metres of water in the past year, the province now has slightly more than 160 million cubic metres of usable water left – representing a deficit of 84 million cubic metres of the resource that must sustain the province until the next rainy season.

Simply put, the Western Cape will require three consecutive years of above average rainfall to fully recover from this drought.

The severe rationing of the water supply in the Western Cape and other parts of the country is an indicator that water shedding in South Africa is a reality.

And it could fast become a regular occurrence.

In some townships such as Gugulethu (where I come from), Langa, Nyanga and Khayelitsha, years of progress in the delivery of piped water, which has contributed to improving the quality of life and to poverty reduction, may be undone by a double whammy of a possible introduction of higher tariffs coupled with drastic water rationing.

While this crisis is largely confined to the Western Cape right now, rising water demand across the country – the result of an increasing population and the growth in the number of households using flushing toilets – makes this a national crisis.

Further compounding this is the rapidly depleting supply of fresh water – a challenge confronting the country’s economic hub, Gauteng.

The province has a massive population whose livelihoods are dependent on water-intensive industries, yet it barely has a source of fresh water.

The bulk of the water consumed in the province is drawn from the Maluti Mountains in Lesotho.

Added to this is the threat of ageing infrastructure and the widespread prevalence of acid mine drainage across the Vaal Reef, which means the bulk of water in Gauteng is highly contaminated.

Investing in the country’s water security is certain to become a huge challenge, especially as the crisis becomes replicated across other mining towns in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West.

Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom, this should be a rallying cry for consumers, business and civil society to invest in modern infrastructure and also help change consumer attitudes towards this resource.

Although the regulatory framework requires work, existing legislation is a sufficient springboard to galvanise action.

Policies such as the carbon tax also offer the private sector the required impetus to be innovative in how it invests in infrastructure and saves water – after all, the tax is aimed at encouraging sustainability and this should, in turn, create an environment for new industries.

Most of all, though, I would argue that the solutions to preventing a full-blown and nationwide water crisis are great opportunities for entrepreneurs with the innovation and drive to build world-class water supply and treatment infrastructure.

. Matshekga is the IDC’s divisional executive for agroprocessing, industrial infrastructure and new industries

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