Water finally rises to SA’s development agenda

"Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over," goes a line frequently attributed to Mark Twain. And with the policy positions set out by Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa earlier this week there's no doubt that a fight is coming.

The department gazetted its national water policy review at the end of August, and the public now has 30 days in which to consult and comment on the document. 

It makes no bones about its aims, stating up front that the state has adopted a position of developmental water management and is looking to address the links between water management and government's developmental and transformational goals.

No surprise then that of the 12 points listed by department in its review, the ones that stand out the most relate to water allocations, moves to put a halt to water trading between authorised water users, and what Molewa termed a "use it or lose it" principle.

Molewa said that with 98% of the nation's water resources already allocated, this left little room for either human settlement development or industry development. It was time, she said, to look at reallocating the water that is available in the country.

One of the policy positions is that any water which is not used for a specific period, be reallocated to the public trust. "We are proposing that you either use it or lose it," she said.

In a poignant example of a case in which both human settlement and development have been held back for a lack of water, Molewa referred to recent incidents in Lephalale, Limpopo.

"Two human settlements projects waiting, two applications for two mines waiting, water affairs does not have water because there's an over-allocation … As a result those two projects of human settlements couldn't go ahead, those two mining projects couldn’t go ahead," she said.

In the end the mine had to buy surplus water from an existing water user in the area so that the local municipality could find water for its housing project.

This was not an isolated incident, she said. A similar situation was unfolding in Port St John's, where human settlements are in need of development but cannot go ahead as water in the area has already been allocated.

It's not that the water is not there. Valuation and verification exercises, which allow the state to calculate how much water there is on the ground and how much is actually being used, have shown there is a surplus of water that can be freed up and used for other purposes.

The country may be water-constrained but there are significant resources. Rather it is a case of allocations being inflexible and based on outdated methods for calculating how much a user needs, while technology has also allowed people to use water more efficiently.

"The situation in South Africa is we have 98% of water being fully allocated. This effectively means your child, my child born tomorrow has 2% of water for an allocation and use going into the future," she said, adding: "There's a huge amount of water. We need to free up the 98%. We can't just sit back and say let's reallocate the remaining 2% to everybody, forever."

Chief director of regulation at the department, Deborah Mochotlhi, was straightforward as to how the department saw things.

"People are hoarding water and we are unable to reallocate that water for other [uses]," said Mochotlhi.

Water equality
​Molewa said the intention is not to take water away from a particular race or commercial group but to allocate water equally to those who need it.

But it's clear where many of the cuts will come from. According to Molewa, 62% of the country's water is allocated to agriculture despite the fact that agriculture contributes only 4% to the gross domestic product.

When the time comes to comment, expect farming bodies to be at the forefront.

On the water conservation front, however, the policy positions have been greeted with approval. Water researcher Anthony Turton said the minister's announcement was "very good news" as it meant that people in very high levels of government were starting to take note of the huge importance water has for the economy.

"The bottom line is that South Africa has allocated, in fact in 2000 already, 98% of its total water [so] our entire development is predicated on 2% of the country's water," he said.

Turton said that given the country's water constraints and its development need, it's time to consider what the most rational use for water would be.

If one looked at the water efficiency of various sectors of the economy and at how much that sector contributes to the GDP of the country, agriculture is actually very low down on the list, while sectors such as eco-tourism, banking and services and mining give a much larger bang for your buck, he said.

That being said, it is inevitable that mining and agriculture will find themselves at loggerheads on this matter.

"The American writer Mark Reisner, who wrote a book called Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, said: 'Water flows uphill to power and money.' What the minister has to do now is make sure it flows downhill as it was meant to," said Turton.

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