Economy faces paralysis if govt doesn't act urgently on water crisis - report

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A man collects drinking water from taps that are fed by a spring in Newlands. (Rodger Bosch, AFP, file)
A man collects drinking water from taps that are fed by a spring in Newlands. (Rodger Bosch, AFP, file)

Cape Town - If the government fails to respond to the country's critical water situation, South Africans could face a situation similar to the energy crisis that nearly paralysed the economy, according to a Water Research Commission report.

"To avoid a state of national panic, similar to that which occurred during the energy crisis of 2014 to 2015, the government will have to act immediately. South Africa cannot afford to delay the implementation of more aggressive water policies," it says.

The report, "A Delicate Balance: Water Scarcity in South Africa", due to be released on Friday, sketches a grim picture of the country's tight water situation and the risks this poses to the economy, food security, industry and human well-being.

It says that while Cape Town's water crisis has dominated headlines, the problem extends well beyond the drought-stricken Western Cape. South Africa is facing its worst drought in 23 years and, since 2015, five provinces had been declare disasters areas.

READ: Drought declared a national disaster

The reason, in a nutshell, is not because of drought, but because we are using more water than can be replaced. Over 60% of the country's rivers are over-exploited, and a quarter of them are in a "critical" condition, the report says.

A major problem, according to the report, is the creaking water infrastructure that is in disrepair in much of the country, leading to loss of water through leaks on a national scale.

The water situation would get worse as demand increased in industry, agriculture and municipalities, driven by population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes, expanding use of irrigation, and continued reliance on electricity from coal-fired power stations, which consume vast amounts of water for cooling.

Not all a doom and gloom

All of this is happening against the backdrop of global climate change, which will result in an increasingly hotter SA and a drier climate in the western part of the country.

SPECIAL REPORT: Water Crisis

But it is not all a doom and gloom, Mad Max future. The report lays out ways the country could avoid a national water crisis and live within its water supply limits. But this would take "significant financial investment and a lot of political will".

One of the most effective and cheapest ways of securing water supplies is by decreasing demand, the report says.

While the drought in the Western Cape has resulted in farmers having water allocations cut and Capetonians being restricted to 50l a person a day, this is not the case for most of SA, where the national average of water consumed is 235l a person a day - above the global average of 175l. This needs to be cut, the report argues.

Demand could be reduced through a combination of methods such as repairing water infrastructure to cut leaks, introducing new building codes to ensure more efficient water use, giving incentives to install water-efficient appliances, and having tiered water-pricing structures, where consumers who used a lot of water, pay a higher tariff.

The country must increase the amount of wastewater that is reused - and the authorities must crack down on the amount of untreated wastewater that is released into rivers and the ocean.

A recent survey of 88 municipalities found that about 60% of wastewater released into the environment was untreated and failed to meet government's minimum control standards.

Similar to recent energy crisis

The amount of groundwater SA uses must be increased, particularly for agricultural use. The amount of renewable energy for electricity generation must be increased to cut the industrial water demand.

Currently, SA is dependent on coal for the bulk of its electricity, which uses huge amounts of water for cooling power stations and "threatens to further harm the country's water ecosystems".

Renewable energy will not only reduce water demand, but lower carbon emissions and minimise water contamination related to coal production.

The report says that desalination is "prohibitively expensive" and won't be able to address water scarcity anywhere, except at the large coastal cities of Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. As the cost of this desalination decreased, it was likely to become a viable option for these cities.

"If the government begins to aggressively implement measures to enhance water supply and curtail demand, then it is possible to restore sustainability to South Africa's water sector without resorting to extremely punitive restrictions," the report said.

"But if the government fails to respond to the situation, the country could be forced to endure a situation similar to the recent energy crisis, which nearly paralysed the economy."

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