Editorial: A thirsty future beckons

South Africa is in the midst of a water crisis, with worse to come unless government puts money and political will where its mouth is. We are in the same situation with water that Eskom was in a decade ago with regard to the provision of electricity. We saw the signs then but did nothing.

Half of the country’s sewerage plants are not working and release polluted water into rivers, which is used by people in poor communities and to irrigate crops. People are already dying in places such as Bloemhof and there are increasingly frequent protests about water around the country. But we report on them sporadically, rather than seeing the wood for the trees.

Unlike electricity, though, water scarcity is more difficult to solve: South Africa is developing and the water infrastructure just cannot keep up; municipalities struggle to attract and retain skills to maintain water treatment plants and corruption pokes holes in a money bucket that was not full enough to begin with. About R11-billion worth of water leaks away through rusty pipes or is stolen every year.

But to make decisions, we need data: the Blue Drop report into water treatment plants does not look at water quality, and the Green Drop report into sewerage plants has quietly vanished. The water affairs department says it needs R670-billion to fix infrastructure and to build for a growing population, but it only has half of this and is hoping for public-private partnerships.

But, like electricity a decade ago, water is too cheap to attract private sector investment. Ironically, power plants need water to give us electricity and the water pumps need power to give us clean water. Although the next few years of sporadic electricity look bleak, a future without water is desperate, even without the spectre of climate change looming on the horizon.

Yes, we are a water-scarce country, but the current scarcity is a result of poor governance and underinvestment. The ruling party claims 95% of the population has access to water, but on the ground about a third of the population – 18-million people – do not have access to water on a regular basis. This number is set to increase if we do not act now.

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