SA's water: How to stop a runaway problem
12 Nov 2019
The level of Nelson Mandela Bay’s second-biggest supply dam is now so low that water cannot be pumped from it. This brings the metro dangerously close to becoming the first SA city to run out of water. So how did we get here? Drought isn't solely to blame.
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Environmental scientist Alex McNamara of NBI, breaks down what is an all-encompassing problem, into three critical areas and gives some strategies on how to fix SA's water crisis.
The “perfect dust storm”
The effects of this can be seen across the country, but one river that’s been in trouble for decades is the Vaal. Given it’s one of SA’s primary strategic water sources, interventions to address the problem have been unacceptably slow. But recently Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced that government is focused on mobilising short-term financing and has called on the military to assist with engineering and other expertise to resolve the crisis. South African Human Rights Commission has also taken the Vaal crisis on, initiating an urgent inquiry into violations of constitutional
We will run out of water in 2030 unless there is a complete mind shift about the true value of water and a R900bn investment in the sector over the next decade.
36% of water in the system is lost to leaking. McNamara says that amounts to about 10 billion rands worth of water that quite literally ‘going down the drain’ every year.
Andre Wepener, head of the Power & Infrastructure team at Investec says that it will take political and administrative will to deal with the issue of "non-revenue water" - that's really the difference between the amounts of water in the distribution system and the amount that ultimately gets billed to customers.
"In SA, our non-revenue water is, as of 2017, estimated to be 41% of the water in our system," he says. International best practice puts this loss at 15%, while other water-stressed countries like Australia keep it down to 10%.
"This is leakage, often owing to poor operation and maintenance of the systems. It's also commercial losses from meter tampering and other forms of theft or unbilled consumption."
LISTEN TO PODCAST: Investec's Andrew Wepener on how to tackle the water issue before the taps run dry
On top of the insufficient and failing infrastructure, those charged with operating the water systems cannot do the job. “In 2014, the latest assessment we have, municipalities were actually asked to self-assess themselves, and the results were scary: 46% of municipalities in South Africa think they are in a critical or crisis state, where they’re not able to fulfil their water and sanitation mandate.”
McNamara is worried that South Africa will suffer what he calls the “perfect dust storm” where our limited water resources (SA is a semi-arid country that receives only half of the global average rainfall) combined with failing infrastructure and poor management will leave millions with water.
Dry dam in Western Cape during 2017 drought
Climate change will suck us dry
“If we were to cool the earth by 5°, we would enter an ice age. So you have to imagine, warming the earth by 4°, would completely transform our society and our natural environment.”
Some balm for the burn
“South Africa’s our per capita water usage is too high, and much of that is through water leakage, but it’s also through wasteful usage by everyday consumers.” If we invest in the maintenance of infrastructure and people are more conscientious with water we could save billions of cubic metres annually. We can also store water in dams that have lower evaporation rates, and we can store water underground. Water re-use is something he says we have to adopt. We must follow the route of Namibia, Singapore and California, who use water multiple times.
Judge water by its quality, not by it's history.We need to embrace new technologies like desalination. “There are technologies that are already being used very effectively in other parts of the world, like the Arab region.”
Situated on the tip of Africa with the Indian and Atlantic Ocean at our disposal- this solution seems ideal, but it is power reliant and load shedding would be problematic. Policymakers and energy planners will have to factor the large amount of power needed to run a desalination plant and possibly consider renewable energy power. There’s already been some experimenting with desalination in Cape Town, and McNamara says they’ve learnt a lot from that crisis.
Investec's Wepener points to atmospheric water as a possible option. "There are some exciting new technologies and innovation in the water space. One of these is atmospheric water generators, which essentially takes humidity out of the air and produces drinking water. It's costly and it's quite a small-scale solution, but it's certainly one of the ones that we can consider."
There are others solutions, too. Municipal water reuse could mean treating wastewater for agricultural or human consumption. Rainwater harvesting at a household level can be treated for drinking water, or to fill swimming pools and water gardens.
"But this can also be done on a larger scale, at a municipal level, where stormwater drains could be used to collect rainwater – and it could be pushed back into the grid if it's treated," Wepener says.
In 2018 California's desalination plant had delivered 40 billion gallons of drought-resilient drinking water since construction in 2015.
<br>Give water the value it deserves
South Africans have to value water more and cover the real costs of producing it. Everyone other than the indigent will have to pay more for this essential good.
We’re certainly not paying the economic value, or even just the cost price to produce it. But there’s also the environmental value, which we haven’t even got to. But the first thing we really have to do, is to at least price water accurately, and what it costs us to produce it, with abasic return, so that we can reinvest in our water infrastructure.”
The key thing we have to note here, is that we can combine a cost-effective tariff for people who can afford to pay, with a subsidy or free basic water, for people who can’t. This is applied in most of the country already, but we need to ensure that people who are paying experience better quality of service.
If we’re ever going to reach a point where SA’s water needs are met, a much more diverse water mix is needed, including groundwater and water reuse. We have to fix the infrastructure and skill deficiencies and start embracing technologies, all the while planning for the impact of climate change.
About the author
Caroline Edey-van Wyk
Colloquially known as Investec’s “storyteller,” Caroline curates and produces all the content that underpins Investec's Out of the Ordinary brand promise. She works across the business but specialises in the areas of Sustainability, CSI, Sponsorships and HR. Caroline holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Political Science and Broadcasting - cum laude. Before she joined Investec she was a broadcast journalist at Sky News and eNCA.