Waste at heart of water wrangle

Good as gold: South Africa has to invest R700-billion in water over the next decade. (Walter Astrada/AFP)

Good as gold: South Africa has to invest R700-billion in water over the next decade. (Walter Astrada/AFP)

Early this year a company called Waterfund signed an agreement with IBM to develop the world’s first water cost index.

The aim is to calculate the unsubsidised cost of fresh water production around the world in a bid to attract private capital to finance the maintenance, upgrading and development of water systems.

In May, Waterfund announced that Uganda had become the first African country to join the index.

Developments like this point to the growing realisation that water is as good as gold when it comes to any nation’s wellbeing and prosperity. But unlike gold, we die without it.

To meet future water demand — and to upgrade, repair and provide the infrastructure of the entire water value chain — South Africa will have to invest R670-billion over the next decade, according to the department of water affairs.

A further R30-billion is needed for sustainable water management solutions.

Competition complicates challenges
The challenges are complicated by the competition between water needed for food production and water needed for energy production-known as the water -food -energy nexus.

Agriculture is the largest user of water at 60%, according to the department, but contributes a mere 3% to gross domestic product.

But, according to AgriSA, 30% to 40% of the country’s food is produced under irrigation and globally agriculture accounts for about 70% of water use.

Earlier this month the minister of water and environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, announced a national water policy review to plug existing gaps.

The review recommends the two overarching pieces of legislation — the National Water Act (NWA) and the Water Services Act — be brought into one law.

Recommendations also include the imposition of a use-it-or-lose-it principle in adjudicating water rights — and a halt to water trading.

Water allocation
According to Molewa, 98% of all available water has been allocated and those users not using their full allocation must return it to the state.

But experts have warned the proposals do little to address key challenges.

According to Carin Bosman, a water governance consultant to both the private and public sector, the proposed changes fail to address existing problems.

The only aspect of water use that the review addresses is the introduction of the use-it-or-lose-it principle.

But that takes little cognisance of scientific principles or realities on the ground, she said.

Bosman gave the example of a farmer who, if facing a drought one year, does not use his full allocation in an attempt to conserve water, he will be penalised under the use-it-or-lose-it principle.

Types of water-use authoristion
There are four types of water-use authorisation under the National Water Act, she said: authorisation under schedule one of the Act covers things like reasonable domestic use; general authorisations with limitations are set for some geographical areas, and the quality and quantity of water used; water-use licences may be granted for areas deemed sensitive, or covering large-scale activity such as mining; and there is a transitional arrangement called existing lawful use for water use that was lawful before the Act came into effect in 1998.

Following the implementation of the Act, existing lawful users were required to register with the department, which had to verify the water allocations of those registered.

But this is still going on, 15 years later.

If the department wants to implement use-it-or-lose-it, it has to improve its monitoring systems, Bosman said.

The policy review also proposes an end to the trading of water rights in order to strengthen the use-it-or-lose- it principle.

If the department was seeking greater control over water trading, it should be considered — but it should not “end it because you don’t like it”, she said.

Farmers who do not use their full water allocations can trade with neighbouring farms or entities like mines, ensuring the water is used economically.

“But water is a liquid,” she said. “If a farmer doesn’t trade it and it is not used, we all lose because it just flows into the sea.”

Licences problem
The review also fails to deal with the problem of issuing water-use licences, she said.

The current process is technically complex and a lack of skills in the department means licences are not only taking years to be issued but, in many cases, they are also so poorly drafted that they are technically unenforceable.

The policy also fails to address the biggest pollution threat to the country’s surface water resources — namely the discharge of untreated sewage by municipalities.

“The proposed policy framework is mum on this whole issue and does not indicate that the compliance and enforcement framework in the NWA will be strengthened or amended to address this matter properly,” she said.

The answer to many of these and other challenges is not to redraft the law, Bosman said, but rather to “draw up an implementation plan” for the country’s water sector.

The department did not respond to requests for comment but Molewa said in a press statement that the proposals are not aimed at prejudicing farmers but rather at identifying water that is allocated but not productively and efficiently used.

No water for allocation
But, according to Professor Anthony Turton, who co-founded the South African Water, Energy and Food Forum, there is no water available for further allocation.

The country sits on the “horns of a dilemma”, he said, and can no longer ensure water security, food security and energy security simultaneously.

The use-it-or-lose-it approach to water rights is an attempt by the department to begin effectively re-allocating water-use rights, he said.

The competing interests of various sectors, including agriculture, has to be dealt with in the national interest.

But addressing these challenges is very complex and requires rational debate between the government, organised agriculture and mining.

And practices such as water trading help to place an economic value on water, he said.

An economic resource and a social good
In South Africa, water is deemed both an economic resource and a social good, but the cost of providing water is not reflected in the prices it is sold at.

As a result, the government is struggling to fund the infrastructure it needs to provide water and water services.

But this is not a “crash and burn” scenario, Turton said.
There are trade-offs and options that the government could consider, such as thinking regionally about meeting food or energy needs.

For instance, rather than allocating water for fracking in the Karoo, it should look to its neighbours such as Mozambique to secure gas reserves and to meet future energy requirements, he said.

The country also needs to invest in science, engineering and technology to better recycle water.

“From this comes what is known as a dual stream reticulation system where water of different quality and price is used for different purposes,” he said.

For instance, treated acid mine drainage could be sold for use in industrial processes.

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