Facing challenges in the water sector

Water sector must address infrastructure issues (Reuters)

Water sector must address infrastructure issues (Reuters)

In his Budget Speech in February this year, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that over the medium-term expenditure framework of the next three years, 216 000 houses are to be built and R 847-billion invested in infrastructure to provide the basis for social and economic development.

Local authorities are to receive R40-billion in the 2014/15 financial year for water, sanitation and energy-related services and infrastructure. Human settlements in 53 municipalities are to be upgraded. A programme for the rehabilitation of dams and water transfer schemes was also indicated. In the agricultural sector one-million jobs are to be created by the stimulation of agriculture and boosting domestic food production.

From the perspective of the water sector, the challenge is an exacting one, given the extraordinary backlogs that exist in water and sanitation, the poor state of much of the water and sanitation infrastructure, the environmental degradation in many of South Africa’s natural systems, the shortage of skills particularly in the engineering and scientific professions, and the fact that South Africa is a mostly water- stressed country, with climate change projected to result in increased aridity in certain parts of the country and an increased variability in rainfall in the future.

The Budget Speech and the reaffirmation of the NDP is a call to action for the different spheres of government and the private sector to use the resources that have been allocated and the guidance provided by the NDP to address basic issues in South Africa, particularly in the water sector, to lay the foundation for a sustainable future.

Key areas for intervention

  • Universal access to water and sanitation
  • Unacceptable low levels of service and inadequate access to water and sanitation in informal settlements needs to be radically improved to address basic needs, Constitutional obligations, public health risks and environmental degradation caused by contaminated urban run-off.

Planning of new developments in housing, commerce, industry and agriculture will require timely and adequate provision of bulk water and waste-water infrastructure to avoid lead time delays. Unaccounted for water in South Africa’s cities and towns is extremely high relative to best practice.

Leaks, inaccurate metering and bursts need to be addressed with properly resourced asset management programmes and technical capability. Most conventional bulk water sources such as impoundment and ground water are to a large extent developed or environmentally sensitive. Less conventional bulk water sources, such as recycling, desalination and use of treated effluent for irrigation will need to be increasingly developed.

The extensive non-compliance of effluent from treatment works will need to be addressed with upgrades and extended capacity, together with funding assistance to struggling municipalities.

Key to closing the gap between limited supply and increasing demand for water is managing the demand for water with restricting non-essential use, such as hours when a garden hose may be used, pressure management, leak detection and appropriate tariff policies that address excessive consumption.

Water demand management needs to be vigorously implemented across the country with effective corrective measures for non-compliance. Free basic water allocations across the board should be reviewed by municipalities and perhaps replaced with free allocations to only the indigent.

Current tariffs do not reflect the value of water, the cost of provision and the need to fund the extensive infrastructure and management required to sustain the water service. Current tariff levels will need to be reviewed. Conservation of South Africa’s water resources is key to ensuring adequate supply in the future.

The contamination of catchments and ground water resources is a cause of ongoing concern. Environmental management of catchments and protection of groundwater resources from contamination is critical to conserving South Africa’s water resources. In this regard the development of South Africa’s shale gas resources will need to be carefully considered.

The technical skills, particularly in the engineering and scientific professions, to implement the ambitious programmes outlined above will need substantial augmentation by addressing a dysfunctional education system, particularly in maths and science, to enable an increased flow of capable people into the engineering and scientific professions.

The sustained job creation potential of the programme outlined above is significant at all levels — professional, technical, artisan and unskilled — and as such, presents an opportunity through the provision of infrastructure and services in the water sector for employment on a large scale. Engagement of the ultimate users and funders of the water service, the community, is key to ensuring understanding, support and participation in the programme outlined above.

Communication with the community and education at school level of the value of water and the need for the measures outlined above to ensure a sustainable future is key. A period of intense activity lies ahead in the next few years for South Africa as we seek to give practical meaning to the implementation of the NDP, fleshed out in programmes and projects to deliver a prosperous and sustainable future.

The Water Sector must play a critical role working in a co-ordinated and integrated manner with other sectors to achieve these ends.

There is a need for all spheres of society to play their role from government, led by the department of water affairs, in terms of policy, planning, funding and co-ordination, the private sector in terms of advisory, consulting, technical skills and construction, and the public in terms of awareness, participation, vigilance and ultimate oversight of the politicians, administrators and professionals who will implement this vast undertaking.

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