Strategic solutions to SA’s water challenges

Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa. (Oupa Nkosi)

Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa. (Oupa Nkosi)

As the end of the UN designated International Decade for Action “Water for Life” approaches next year in 2015, South Africa recognises that it is one of the countries that is dealing with significant water infrastructure and scarcity challenges.

Government also recognises that this is the decade of equity and redistribution — when we must practically realise everyone’s right to water, which is guaranteed in our Constitution. However, our water resources are under considerable pressure and if we are to meet the demands of the economy, of society and ensure sufficient water for the environment, we need to make the right strategic decisions and plan comprehensively and carefully to ensure we can develop, manage, protect and control the use of our water resources effectively for the future.

Recent media reports have highlighted the growing frustration on the part of citizens in several parts of the country who are still experiencing significant challenges when it comes to accessing clean, safe and regular water supplies.

There is no doubt that there have been significant historical water resource, infrastructure and management challenges to deal with by government and in particular by the department of water affairs (DWA), and the task has been a mammoth one.

Ageing infrastructure and the need for continual maintenance, combined with essential new water resource developments are just some of those challenges, particularly in rural areas and some of the smaller municipalities around the country. Significant concerns have also been raised recently regarding pollution and resource quality, water security for both social and economic development, as well as water service quality.

All of these concerns are being addressed as they have major social, economic and environmental impacts on our lives and businesses. The challenge is to achieve the essential equity and redistribution of our water resources, while at the same time ensuring water security for the future and also enough water for our national economic growth and development priorities.

Government’s strategic approach

Despite these substantial water challenges, the response on the part of government has been equally substantial and this is evident in the significant amount of work that has been done to formulate and implement the ambitious National Water Resource Strategy 2.

This strategic roadmap is a response to not only address the current challenging water situation, but it also provides an advanced and smart water management approach to take the country forward into a more positive, water secure future.

The new strategy, which is currently being implemented, addresses and prioritises sustainable water resource management, including asset management and effective operations, effective use and demand management, local resource optimisation including ground water utilisation, water systems management and control, re-use, desalination and utilisation of sea water, new technology and very importantly, the protection of our precious water resources.

As a result of this strategic approach, today nine out of 10 South African citizens have access to clean and safe water supplies, yet the government will not rest until all citizens can enjoy this basic human right. The new National Water Resource Strategy 2 seeks to place water at the heart of all planning in the country, so that any decisions that rely on the steady supply of water adequately factor in water availability.

However, for water to play an optimal role in poverty eradication, the reduction of inequality, inclusive growth and development, and building a just and equitable society as well as water resources, planning must be integrated into national, provincial and local planning, and must be addressed in all growth and development strategies. So, how does the new National Water Resources Strategy look to achieve these goals?

The DWA will continue, in partnership with stakeholders, to develop and maintain reconciliation strategies for balancing water supply and demand in critical and water-scarce catchments. Critical water infrastructure planning will be aligned with government’s vision for urban development and will, as a priority, ensure that there is sufficient water supply for the future development of South Africa’s cities and towns.

Implementation will continue on nine major DWA water resource infrastructure projects across the country such as the De Hoop Dam on the Steelpoort River, the raising of Hazelmere Dam in the Mdloti River, north of Durban, and the raising of Clanwilliam Dam in the Western Cape, to name but a few. Other major water resource development and management projects are also under consideration by the DWA.

Plans for improvement

Under the new strategy, there is also a focus on the rehabilitation of existing water infrastructure, one of the key challenges currently making the headlines in the news and the cause of distress in some communities. The DWA plans to increase the allocation of funds for the maintenance, rehabilitation and refurbishment of government-owned water infrastructure.

The DWA will also require water-services authorities and water boards to prioritise investment in the refurbishment and upgrading of waste-water treatment plants to prevent the pollution of existing water resources, another key challenge highlighted by citizens, particularly in rural communities and townships.

The new strategy also looks to promote the greater use of ground water on a larger scale and to assist this development and management process, the DWA is implementing the new national ground water strategy. Reinforcing the focus on environmental resource management, the DWA has also developed a national strategy for water reuse, which provides a considered approach to the implementation of water reuse projects.

The DWA will continue to support the national rainwater harvesting programme, which focuses on the construction of above and below-ground rainwater storage tanks for households in rural communities. The DWA has also developed a national desalination strategy that contains a strategic approach to the planning, development and implementation of desalination to support more productive development and utilisation of national water resources.

On the innovation front, an investigation has been commissioned to examine the prospects for retrofitting hydroelectric generation equipment at existing DWA dams with hydroelectric power potential. The department of energy has shortlisted 14 sites for further detailed evaluation.

Finally, the new strategy looks to create temporary and sustainable job opportunities on the construction, operation and maintenance of all water infrastructure projects. The South African Institution of Civil Engineering and the Water Research Commission will assist the DWA in further investigating the potential for the use of labour-intensive construction methods to create temporary and sustainable job opportunities, all of which is good news for communities across the country.

Moving forward

In addition, the government’s ambitious national infrastructure plan has identified as one of its key strategic integrated projects (SIPs), a focus on water and sanitation infrastructure. SIP 18 is about the delivery of water and sanitation services to all South Africans. Working in collaboration with the department of human settlements and co-operative governance, the DWA has been charged with the responsibility of integrating their work through infrastructure development.

The DWA recognises that water plays an optimal role in poverty eradication, the reduction of inequality, inclusive growth and development, and building a just and equitable society. The interventions outlined in the new national water resources strategy and the national infrastructure plan will contribute to fulfilling south africa’s socio-economic development potential. At the heart of these interventions is sound and efficient water resources planning and management being integrated into national, provincial and local planning and remedial action processes.

Ultimately, this will develop the critical sustainable water supply chain, from source to tap to source, that is needed to ensure South Africa’s current and future water needs are met.

Edna Molewa is the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs

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