Without water, civilisation's at risk

Service delivery protests in Khayelitsha. (Photo: David Harrison)

Service delivery protests in Khayelitsha. (Photo: David Harrison)

Nomvula Mokonyane, minister of water affairs and sanitation, believes a change is needed in the way South Africans think about water — she believes it is key to averting a supply crisis.

 “Behavioural attitude is going to place constraints. I want to start there. Behavioural conduct — by industry, individuals, government and everybody — is going to create a strain on water security.

“The reason is … over the years, South Africans have acted irresponsibly when it comes to water use.

“We use drinkable water for many activities that are not dependent on drinkable water. For me, that’s the starting point. We have to change behaviour in South Africa before we can be worried about availability.”

South Africa was not using the water it had wisely and responsibly, she said. “There is very little use of recycled water. We have not explored, to the fullest, the use of groundwater. Rainwater harvesting has not been fully explored.

“Our ... designs are highly water dependent, yet science has brought new technologies, alternative material — there’re [many] solutions.”

When asked if the time had not arrived for her to sound a warning to her Cabinet colleagues, as there was not funding available to avert a potential water crisis, Mokonyane said to do so would be “alarmist”.

She said work was under way on a new South African water plan, to provide solutions to the country’s water and sanitation problems and would be completed by next April.

Mokonyane also vowed to rid the country of bucket toilets by the end of 2015, in so-called “informal areas”.

Speaking in the National Assembly in May during a debate on her department’s R16.4-billion budget for 2015-16, she called for a “revolution” in the way water and sanitation is managed in South Africa.

“There is a need for a revolution, to reclaim and better manage our water and sanitation,” she told MPs, before reminding them of what former president Nelson Mandela had said on the subject: “sanitation is more important than independence”.

Among her proposed solutions is a move from waterborne sewerage systems. “We ... seek to move our sanitation systems from highly wasteful waterborne sewage to low-water and no-water solutions,” she said.

Speaking to journalists ahead of the debate, she touched on the pollution of South Africa’s river systems.

“Irrigation in South Africa consumes the largest portion of the [available] water. But there is a high dependence on the use of chemicals in the agriculture sector. So we get clean water and contaminate [it] and we can’t even re-use it. The way we handle and use water in South Africa poses a threat in terms of water availability for the future,” she said.

This view has found support from a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University, who warns that high salinity and pesticide chemical levels in some rivers, particularly in parts of the Western Cape, pose a threat to the country’s agricultural exports.

Willem de Clercq, who works at the university’s water institute, said in a recent interview that the quality of the water used on farms located along the region’s Berg and Breede rivers was very poor.

“The high salinity and pesticide levels in the return flows into the river are definitely not meeting the standard expected by the Europeans, and even the Chinese.

“We may soon be in a bad situation, as wine and fruit exports are among the mainstays of the province’s economy,” he warned.

Mokonyane, commenting on her department’s skills shortage, said this was the result of professionals and technicians not being keen to work in isolated rural areas. But, transformation would go a long way towards solving this problem.

“We need to open up for a new culture; a new way of doing things, including opening up for black professionals.” Her department acknowledges the shortage of professional specialists, such as engineers, technicians and project managers.

This year, Mokonyane controversially recruited 35 Cuban engineers, prompting the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering, the Water Institute of Southern Africa and Consulting Engineers South Africa to meet urgently with Parliament’s water and sanitation portfolio committee.

The institutions believe the skills shortages can be addressed locally.