Comment and Analysis

Sound water policy: Govt can't do it alone

Edna Molewa

South Africa's ecosystems are in a poor state and the challenges of a developing society are huge, writes Edna Molewa.

The poor are the most susceptible to water crises. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The challenge of managing our water resources requires proactive solutions, especially with the reality of climate change on our doorstep. In addition to this grim reality, there is a need to address pressing issues of equity in an environment in which the country's water resources are reeling under increasing pressure in terms of abstraction, habitat destruction and pollution.

This is a complex physical, social and economic matrix and our recently published second edition of the national water resources strategy aims to address it. It sets out the strategic direction for water resources management in South Africa over the next 20 years and has a practical emphasis on what needs to happen in the short term - five years. It provides the framework for the protection, use, development, conservation, management and control of water resources for South Africa, as well as the framework in which water must be managed at catchment level in defined water-management areas.

The water sector has undergone major change since the dawn of democracy in 1994 and since then we have developed a remarkable body of policy and legislation, which has been acclaimed all over the globe for its progressive and ground-breaking nature.

But we cannot escape the reality that the implementation of the new policy and legislation has been slow, particularly in terms of equity and redress in access to water and sanitation. Although the provision of safe domestic water supplies has reached 95% of the population, showing remarkable strides since 1994, the allocation and reallocation of raw water to historically disadvantaged communities for productive purposes has not progressed as it should. The number of people without adequate services is still too large, particularly among the poor.

Progress in allocating water for productive purposes to promote transformation has been slow to date and water-use patterns are still unequal.

Future sustainability
To make it worse, there is increasing pressure on our water resources because of challenges in management and future sustainability. These factors could have implications for the socioeconomic growth of the country if not resolved timeously.

Although South Africa potentially has sufficient water resources to meet our current and future needs, they can only be secured through effective and timeous smart water-management options. Ultimately, South Africa is a water-scarce country and water security and associated equity must be achieved within spatial, physical, technological, financial and governance constraints.

Effective water resource management is dependent on all water users and water managers playing their part. The government alone cannot do it. If the new strategy is to be successfully implemented, it is important that all South Africans have a better understanding of how the water cycle works and how their day-to-day actions impact on it.

It is equally important to understand the context of water resources in South Africa and the specific challenges we face.

South Africa is the 30th-­driest country in the world. In many parts of the country we have either reached or are fast approaching the point at which all our financially viable freshwater resources will be fully utilised.

Despite the good infrastructure, floods and droughts are part of the normal water cycle and water restrictions and flood management are a critical part of the water ­business. But, despite good ­infrastructure, the poor and marginalised experience water scarcity most intensely, particularly in underdeveloped rural areas.

It is imperative that all South Africans recognise the severity of the situation so that steps can be taken to assess current and future demands for water. This will not be an easy task, but with the necessary resolve a secure water future can be achieved.

Impact on human health
South Africa also has some significant water quality challenges, particularly those arising from mining, urban development, industrial development and agriculture.

Rural communities in parts of the country that are dependent on groundwater are negatively affected because the natural mineral content exceeds recommended levels. Untreated or poorly treated waste water severely affects the quality of water in many areas.

In addition, our water ecosystems are not in a healthy state. Of the 223 river ecosystem types, 60% are threatened and 25% critically endangered. Less than 15% of river ecosystems are located in protected areas and many are threatened and degraded by upstream human activities.

Of 792 wetland ecosystems, 65% have been identified as threatened and 48% as critically endangered. Furthermore, 31% of freshwater fish species indigenous to South Africa are threatened. This is of enormous environmental concern, given the crucial role of wetlands in water purification, flood regulation and drought mitigation.

This situation has a negative impact on human health, on rural communities directly dependent on water-related ecosystems such as wetlands for their livelihoods, and on the mainstream economy. It demands drastic intervention. Water quality and water quantity issues and solutions are interrelated and need to be addressed in an integrated way.

The proposed new national water resources strategy aims to address these critical challenges and provide an effective framework for both immediate and long-term solutions to ensure that South Africa can more efficiently protect, develop, conserve and manage its precious water resources to ensure an equitable and sustainable future for all its citizens.

Edna Molewa is the minister of water and environmental affairs

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