On current trends, South Africa is headed for a crisis of water security and quality that will hamper the country’s social and economic development.

Sooner than many policy-makers anticipate, emerging water supply problems will impact on the whole spectrum of South Africa’s development challenges.

This is the sobering reality that has emerged in a report released this week, based on round table discussions convened by Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) and the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE).

The aim was to examine the state of the water sector in South Africa, probe the reasons for its problems, and explore some solutions. Participants included government officials, representatives of business and civil society, academics, consultants, and other experts.

“Water security is a critical issue,” said Ann Bernstein, executive director of CDE. “To improve the country’s outlook, political leadership at the highest levels must recognise the severity of the current situation.

“They need to pay urgent attention to putting appropriate policies and institutional capabilities in place to address threats to water security and quality.”

South Africans may one day have to make do with significantly less water per capita. For a country already using almost all its existing water resources, this would be a dramatic change, with far-reaching implications for households, businesses, communities and government.

South Africa is in this position for a number of reasons: it is a very dry country and 98% of its existing water resources are already fully developed. Its largest economic centres are not situated near the major sources of water and acid mine drainage is affecting the quality of available water. Added to these issues, the water the country does have is being managed badly.

A highly ambitious policy agenda has been pursued with scant regard for the vital role of skills and experience in water management. The desire to meet targets of demographic representivity, along with the all too frequent practice of securing jobs for friends and political allies, has trumped almost all other priorities in the process of staffing both existing and newly established entities.

“Water supply has come under growing strain,” said Bernstein. “It has become clear that the deterioration in water management is largely due to a failure of government at all levels.”

None of the catchment management agencies, established by law in the late 1990s to sit at the heart of the country’s water resource management, is functioning. Some 90 municipalities do not have a single professional water engineer, and very few have written operating procedures. Ninety percent of municipalities cannot meet water standards for discharge from their waste water treatment plants.

“We are losing up to a third of our water in some areas because of ageing infrastructure. In Gauteng, for instance, the infrastructure was designed 40 or 50 years ago and does not cater for the current population.

“In order to avoid the worst outcomes of present trends, we need urgently to focus on factors over which we have some control.”

Some of the vital steps identified during the round table include:

  • Political leadership is vital
  • Institutions responsible for managing water must be strengthened. This requires improving structures of governance and ensuring that all appointees have the skills and experience to manage the sector. Political deployments and jobs-for-pals must not be tolerated
  • Maintenance of existing infrastructure must be prioritised, especially in growing urban areas
  • The impact of acid mine drainage needs to be addressed, with government and industry working together to minimise the impact of this threat to water quality, especially in Gauteng and increasingly Mpumalanga
  • Waste needs to be minimised, with consumers, businesses and government playing their part. As the country’s experience with electricity has shown, this requires getting prices and incentives right.

“Though not yet as visible a crisis as electricity provision, water supply is already impeding the country’s socio-economic development in some localities,” said Bernstein.

“Water is not the only scarce resource that is running out. So is time.”   This article is based on the following report, Water: A looming crisis?

Photo credit: Anandan Anandan