Water-intensive energy production sucks the people dry

A million families still do not have a minimum 25 litres of water a person a day. (Gallo)

A million families still do not have a minimum 25 litres of water a person a day. (Gallo)

Every year, World Water Day, March 22, coincides with Human Rights Day in South Africa. This year marks 20 years of democracy in this country, but many South Africans still do not have access to a clean and reliable supply of water. Indeed, for them it is not very different to the apartheid era.

According to reports, a million families still do not have a minimum 25 litres of water a person a day and the supply of water to another two million people is below basic service standards.

As a nation, we can mark this day as a day for decision-makers to be held accountable: What solutions have they put forward to the twin challenges of water scarcity and the persistent electricity crises?

National Water Week forms part of an awareness campaign by the department of environmental affairs, "which serves as a campaign mechanism, reiterating the value of water, the need for sustainable management of this scarce resource and the role water plays in eradicating poverty and underdevelopment".

South Africa is water stressed and it is estimated that nearly 98% of the country's water resources have already been allocated, leaving no resilience in the system to respond to extreme weather events, natural disasters or increased energy demands.

By taking the ever-changing environment into account, South Africa should be building a more resilient system based on smarter energy choices with reduced water demands, while leaving the natural environment in a balanced state.

But there are clear connections between coal expansion and water scarcity – it is impossible to mine, clean or burn coal without a large amount of water. But decision-makers do not seem to be taking this into account.

As outlined in the National Water Act of 1998, the government must allocate water equitably and in the public interest.

Currently 2% of South Africa's water supply is dedicated to coal mining and another 2.5% is allocated to the only recognised "strategic water user" of national importance – Eskom.

These allocations will seriously affect the country should there be an extreme drought, and the demand for water to drive energy production will only increase should the government go ahead with a third new large-scale coal-fired power station in the Waterberg, as indicated by the Cabinet.

Clearly, South Africans have been left on the back burner in favour of coal expansion, which comes at the expense of access to scarce water resources, people's health and affordable electricity.

The government is contradicting the basic principles of equity and citizens' rights by deciding to invest in new coal-fired power stations instead of relatively water-free technologies such as wind and solar photo­voltaic.

According to Greenpeace Africa's 2014 Energy Manifesto, there is still hope. Water-efficient, renewable energy and the smarter use of energy can very easily replace fossil fuels while coal is being phased out and if South Africa avoids investing in dangerous energies such as shale gas – a water-intensive technology – and nuclear.

A lesson that the current load-shedding woes is teaching us is that a South African solar rooftop revolution, based on systems that can generate energy near the place where it is needed, is the future. In this way, people would be able to control their own energy production and would be allowed to sell power to the grid if they generate an excess. This would create a win for our struggling power supply and a win for citizens at the same time.

We can join hands to make the difference, particularly in an election year. The campaigns are in full swing and, as we count down to May 2014, remember that the government and future political leaders we vote in are responsible for the delivery of clean, safe and healthy water and electricity.

Indeed, as we observe Human Rights Day, let us remember that access to a clean and reliable supply of water is a right for all.

Shanaaz Nel is a campaigner for Greenpeace.

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