SA economy can grow and avoid a water crisis - expert

Cape Town – Various steps are required to ensure South Africa can sustainably consume water without the taps running dry, a scenario-planning expert explained on Wednesday.

Alan Iny, a New York-based associate director and senior global specialist for creativity and scenarios at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), was in South Africa this week to present his ideas on planning for future water scenarios at a World Wildlife Fund conference, with a range of corporate, government and NGO representatives.

Iny pointed out that South Africa is using 98% of its water supply and that Cape Town has less than 90 days of water left if there is no further rain in the region.

“When you think of water supply, it confirms we have a crisis here,” he said.

Iny said South Africa has unusually low rainfall and says not many more dams can be built to hold more water. “There are currently 4 700 registered dams in the country, and there is not much scope for more to be built.”

He said the mining industry is the smallest consumer of water, taking up 3% (which he said was a surprisingly low figure), while agriculture used 63% (a relatively high amount), municipalities (toilets, showers) used 26% and the industrial sector (minus mining) used 8%.  

Iny said there is still room for economic and population growth – which will increase water usage – without putting too much of a burden on water consumption.

One reason for that is because Iny sees the agriculture sector reducing its water consumption through more water-efficient farming methods, which will result in total water usage only increasing at 1% a year over the next 15 years.

However, even this 1% could be too much of a burden if the water crisis continues and Iny sees ways that the country could prepare itself to live sustainably with the same amount of water or less.

“What is required is a change in mental models,” he said.

This requires stress-testing using future scenarios to enable the creative change in mental models as reality sets in. “We have to let go of current assumptions about water, conservation and demand,” he said. “We need to think differently about some of these things.”  The scenarios developed will be released in March by the WWF and BCG as part of water week.

As an example, Iny sees desalination and reusing water from mining and industry as key negative assumptions that need changing, along with approaches to education and conservation.

“Creativity boils down to changes in perception,” he explained. “Businesses especially need to understand what mental models need adjusting. How can we challenge negative assumptions about things like desalination?

“Fresh thinking around desalination and reusable water can be influenced, unlike rainfall,” he said. “We could overcome the challenge, but it requires political will, industry engagement and regional stability (many dams are based in Lesotho).”

He said people often have a bias against radical innovations in favour of a natural tendency towards the status quo, but said it makes sense to use recycled industry water for flushing toilets, for example.

“How can we create a culture of entrepreneurship around desalination and reusable water?” he asked, citing examples of new businesses being formed in Israel and Australia. “Fresh thinking about fresh water can come from South Africa too.”

As a scenario planner, Iny said it is crucial to “prepare for multiple futures and shape the future to become more positive”.

Iny is the co-author of the 2013 book, Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity.

INFOGRAPHIC: Graphs from Iny's presentation at the WWF conference, which paints the picture of SA's water future

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