Staring into an empty water barrel | WWF South Africa

Staring into an empty water barrel

Posted on 05 May 2015
A child overlooks a dam built in his village where access to water is a major challenge.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
By Christine Colvin

As we wring our collective hands over Eskom’s demise and chide that water will be next, should we all be packing for Perth or throwing the last of our savings into a garden borehole? How is South Africa preparing for the Imperfect Storm on a hotter and more crowded planet?

There is a symphony of alarm bells ringing for water security worldwide, and other countries and cities are already staring down the barrel of an empty water pipe in the face of climate change.

In the US they are talking about ‘Megadroughts’ as California (the 8th largest economy in the world, ahead of Russia) is experiencing its worst drought in history with 94% of the state declared to be in severe drought.  Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city of 11 million has only a few months’ water left. 

Commentators try to scoop the headlines by saying the next wars will be fought over water. We know that is already happening. As with our service delivery protests, ‘water wars’ are predominantly civil wars between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.  Analysts acknowledge that the 2009 Syrian drought, which forced an estimated 1.5 million farmers and their families into the cities and dramatically increased food prices, contributed to the political destabilisation of the country. 

When the lights go out we have options to light a candle, plug in the generator, or gather around the braai. When the taps run dry, as Joburg experienced last September and again in February, and one in 10 South Africans experience on a daily basis, the alternatives for most are non-existent. Water is renewable but not replaceable.

By nature, South Africans are all hydrologically-disadvantaged. We have half the world’s average rainfall. And the rain inconveniently falls in our remote mountain catchments – only 8% of our land area generates half of our river flow in our water source areas. We have high rates of evapotranspiration, leaving our crops thirsty for irrigation and our dams susceptible to losses of 2 m per year before we have siphoned-off one drop. Once we do siphon it off, at least 40% leaks out of our urban infrastructure, never reaching a tap. 

There are three key points of failure that the water sector shares with energy in South Africa. Firstly, and obviously, key elements of South Africa’s water infrastructure are failing. Our waste water treatment plants have not kept pace with urban growth and are now major polluters of our water ways. 

In addition, our ecological infrastructure – the living landscapes that yield flows into rivers and aquifers – is weakened by over-cultivation, sprawling low density settlements, an invasion of thirsty alien vegetation and, in some areas, mining. More than half of Mpumalanga is under prospecting license, mainly for acid generating coal mines, and we are weighing of the costs and benefits on the wrong scales. By relying on impact assessments for individual mines to tell us whether we should mine each site, we are paying for short term, high-carbon, energy security with our long term water security. We need to assess the cumulative impact of a ‘death by a 1000 cuts’ and keep coal mining out of the 8% of our land area that gives us half our water.  

Secondly our water institutions have not transformed at the pace necessary to lead the sector towards the new reality we all face. Catchment management agencies were envisaged in our 1997 legislation and only two of the nine proposed are functional. And thirdly, we are not responding fast enough to getting the basics right in new ways. Our energy sector is finally bringing renewable energy on-line, but we are still too ‘locked-in’ to traditional coal-fired power.

However, it will surprise most South African’s to know that we have some comparative advantages over larger economies in facing a new water future. We have good plans at scales that matter. We have a visionary water law that supports these plans. And we have a knowledgeable and innovative water sector. 

California introduced a law to restrict groundwater abstractions for the first time last year. Rampant entitlement in the wild-west had fuelled the ‘race to the bottom’ as American’s believed their individual right to bear boreholes trumped a need for collective water security. Our 1997 National Water Act and policies are coherent and focussed foundation beyond the imaginings of the tangled legal legacy that persists in most of North America. 

At the highest level, our national development plan is clear that we need water security to grow the economy. The water sector has its own National Water Resource Strategy, developed in consultation with big business and NGOs. But the skeletons of these grand plans can only be bought to life by the muscle of local government. Water Affairs has assessed the needs and future supply options for all of our 900 towns, with a focus first on reducing losses to leaks and ‘demand side management’. We have individual reconciliation strategies for all towns and water risk reduction strategies. 

Our plans are well informed and build on a substantial knowledge base. The Water Research Commission invests in ideas and capacity through-out our sector. Last year eThekwini Water and Sanitation bagged the Stockholm International Water prize for their pioneering work in bringing water to over a million people during the last 14 years and (even more difficult) sanitation to 700,000. Each year millions move to cities, and water scarce countries such as South Africa cannot afford to service these new urban communities with water-borne sewage and flush toilets.  The alternatives need to be socially acceptable and locally manageable.

We have serious battles ahead in the war for enough water. While fracking looks increasingly infeasible in the remote Karoo, if it moves ahead in the same paradigm as mining in South Africa, the 300 towns that are dependent on groundwater in the Karoo have no viable alternatives beyond their vulnerable aquifers. The real game-changer for energy in Africa is likely to be hydropower, with 40 000 MW due to come on stream in the Congo and more in the Zambezi, the DRC and Zambia are set to become the Africa power-houses. 

We need to focus on getting the basics right in new ways for water.  An increasingly volatile future  will demand the best of engineered, community and ecological solutions. Re-engineering catchments is not an option, so we must prioritise and protect the infrastructure that nature gave us – living rivers and safe stores of groundwater – to realise our ambitions for a water secure future.

*Christine Colvin in is a senior programme manager at WWF South Africa
** A version of this opinion piece was published in the Sunday Times on 22 March 2015
A child overlooks a dam built in his village where access to water is a major challenge.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images Enlarge
Water doesn't come from a tap.
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