Ministers: water a ‘blue economy opportunity’

Over half of South Africa’s river ecosystems face severe challenges of pollution says Ebrahim Patel, minister of economic development. (Supplied)

Over half of South Africa’s river ecosystems face severe challenges of pollution says Ebrahim Patel, minister of economic development. (Supplied)

An important spur to economic innovation is scarcity and human need. The next few decades may see vast quantities of sea water making their way into human consumption as desalination technologies become cheaper and more pervasive.

“Better human husbandry of the riches of the seas that cover 70% of the planet is possible, with the potential for an enormous increase in the yield of the oceans,” Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel said during a recent discussion on water infrastructure.

“South Africa, with its long coast line, can make up for the relatively small river systems if technological changes sweep through water management systems at just a fraction of the scale we have seen in information and communication technologies.”

At the heart of this vision is the idea of a “blue economy”: economic activities derived from access to water or proximity to the key waterways of oceans and rivers. “It’s about jobs that are sustained by fishing, ocean and river transport, tourism and recreation, and environmental protection. A focused approach to expanding these opportunities can yield big benefits to the economy,” he said.

Patel heads the engine-room of the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission (PICC), formed by President Jacob Zuma a few years ago to integrate the different build programmes across the state. He points out that South Africa is a water-scarce country and is in the bottom 20% when it comes to availability of water.

“We actually have less water per person than Botswana and Namibia.” But this picture is beginning to change as the government develops new water infrastructure, he says.

“Under this administration, new or expanded water works have provided an additional 176-million litres of drinkable water every day for our people — almost equal to a glass of water per day for every person in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Storage capacity for drinkable water increased by 39-million litres through expansion of reservoirs and tank facilities.” He was part of a team that accompanied Zuma to the opening of two new large dams that have just been completed. They are near De Hoop in Limpopo and the Spring Grove Dam in KwaZulu Natal, bringing 126-million cubic metres of new water into South Africa’s water systems.

Edna Molewa, minister of environmental and water affairs, is also a member of the PICC. As part of a report from the PICC, she pointed out two water pipelines that cover almost 200km, which have been completed to transport water from dams to power stations and industrial sites. Bolder moves These are major achievements.

But if more parts of the country are to see real development, water shortages have to be addressed on a bolder basis, the government believes. “The mineral wealth of the Waterberg area of Limpopo and even the mining around Steelpoort area near Sekhukhune can only be tapped economically if we expand the supply of water substantially.

“We are now putting the public investment into water supply that can transform the economic trajectory of poor parts of the country, bringing development closer to where people live,” Patel says. The rapid rate of urbanisation also puts water systems under strain. This is compounded by aging systems.

“The country invested little in maintenance systems for water, a story that is true also for other key infrastructure.

“We now have to expand the existing supply while fixing old systems that leak huge quantities of water, with uneven qualities in different parts of the country. We certainly cannot afford complacency,” he said.

Pressure factors

Several factors put pressure on our water systems, says Patel. “First, water reserves are not aligned with the population in regional terms. Over half our water management areas already face a shortage. The situation is particularly tight around Gauteng, which is the fastest growing area in our country as well as an economic powerhouse.

“Already we are importing water to Gauteng from as far away as Lesotho. Climate change is also likely to reduce rainfall in the western parts of the country, adding to water pressure there.

“Second, we need to be careful about the impact of economic activities on our water supplies. Over half of our river ecosystems face severe challenges from pollution. We are working to purify water from abandoned mines, which can become an important source of clean water — but would otherwise be wasted and a threat to economic and social development. More than half the water is used for farming, where we have to explore savings more.”

Officials of the PICC cite studies that found up to 60% of water is wasted in some irrigation systems. “And as we move toward expanding shale gas, which can be critical for long-term economic growth, we will have to be very careful about the impact on ground water.”

Addressing ageing systems Dr Molefe Pule, a member of the PICC technical unit in Patel’s department, points to ageing municipal water systems that mean that we waste a lot of water and do not keep up with our commitments to service.

“Estimates suggest that over a third of all piped water is lost to leaks. Moreover, we need to improve the quality of supply in terms of both interruptions and purity, especially in rural communities. “Government figures show that more than 90% of South Africans have access to clean drinking water. “That is an astonishing accomplishment given where we come from, where more than a third of South Africans did not have pure water to drink,” says Pule.

“The main backlogs are in rural areas, especially in the southeastern parts of the country. In addition, we need to move urgently to maintain the existing systems and upgrade quality. We have to start shifting the focus to maintaining and improving existing services, which will require in particular working with municipalities and recapitalising some systems.”

Moving towards efficiency

The PICC technical unit believes the core challenge in maintaining our water supply is to ensure that water is used more efficiently. We have to reduce waste both from our city systems and in farming, and ensure that mining does not damage our water supplies.

It says the core challenges are:

  • To improve maintenance to reduce water leakages, but also improve quality and reduce interruptions, especially in rural areas where quality has tended to be relatively poor
  • To increase efficiency in using water, especially in agriculture, but also around mining and in households
  • To find ways to ensure that the remaining households without clean water gain access – a challenge because many of them are in relatively remote rural areas
  • To reduce the threat to our water resources from pollution
  • To ensure that investment in water infrastructure enables us to meet needs as they arise — given the long time frames required for these projects, this in turn requires careful planning and co-ordination.

Pule notes: “Our sanitation needs go hand in hand with the issues around water. We should ideally be moving toward waterless toilets that are of a higher standard than ventilated improved pit toilets.

“The challenge is to find ways to diffuse the relevant technologies in an affordable fashion. Durban has made important progress in this regard.

“We have to meet a number of competing needs, as the National Water Resource Strategy from 2012 points out. We need to allocate resources carefully to meet the needs of households that have never had clean water; improving and maintaining existing distribution systems for households; ensuring sufficient water to keep the economy running; investments in bulk water supply; and increasing efficiency in water use.”

But the challenges are not only about money, he says. A critical problem is that many municipalities do not have sufficient capacity to maintain their water systems. “In government, the core responsibility for water management lies with the DWA.

“But they require support from across the state, including from all the spheres of government ­— especially the municipalities — as well as the main water agencies such as Rand Water.

“This is where the PICC can help. On the one hand, its mission is to facilitate engagement across the state to drive national priorities such as water management. The national water plan forms part of the National Infrastructure Plan as SIP 18, chaired by Molewa.

On the other hand, the commission is mandated to assist where capacity for infrastructure provision is limited. This is particularly important around the provision of water at municipal level, says Pule. “The PICC has noted that we need about R700-billion in the coming 10 years to meet all our infrastructure challenges and demands for the entire water value chain.

“Government agrees that it will have to be very careful indeed about how we manage this challenge. “It will need in particular to balance competing needs — from households and the economy, for maintenance and for new investment — while carefully identifying the most cost-effective interventions and coming up with financing strategies that are affordable for taxpayers, producers and communities,” he says.

The PICC believes the private sector can play a key role as a partner to government, says Pule. Many of the new technologies around water management and desalination come from private sector innovation, though Chinese state-owned companies appear to be more active than before. “It’s relatively easy for households to save.

But we need businesses, and especially in water-intensive activities such as farming and mining, to rethink their whole production process. “That is a major challenge, which requires forethought and investment. A challenge for us as government is to create an economic environment that supports water saving,” he says.

“Private investors in large projects are big users of water, and their offtake commitments are vital for helping to raise funds for new build programmes.

“For example, the size of the water pipeline into the Waterberg is dependent on the extent of private sector commitment to buying water that the state will pump into the area. This in turn makes it feasible for local communities to benefit from access to affordable water.”

Lynette Milne is the head of the PICC technical unit.

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