Respect water – or pay the price
South Africa’s summer of discontent still has several months to go. Five provinces have been declared drought disaster areas and more than 100 000 tonnes of maize have been imported because of the failing national harvest. Record temperatures have been set and little rain has fallen on parched fields.
For a country gripped with other social and economic problems, the drought is a serious multiplier of hardship.
But the two-year drought is also a chance for South Africa to re-evaluate its relationship with water, with leading minds saying the country should base its future economic growth on its water reality.
The fact that South Africa doesn’t have much water is not new. The country is semi-arid and gets less than half the world average in rainfall – 495mm a year, compared with 1 033mm.
Engineering has managed to capture this rain where it falls the most – the provinces adjacent to Lesotho – and distribute it to areas where there is less rainfall. That has allowed the country to live a separate reality in which water wasn’t a constraint to growth.
This worked in a small economy where a fraction of the population was prioritised when it came to services. But the thinking has remained even as the economy and population exploded in the two decades since 1994.
The damage to existing water production areas – from mining and municipal sewerage works – and shifting rainfall patterns mean South Africa has to come to terms with reality: one where water is the biggest constraint to growth.
But this is not happening, says Dhesigen Naidoo, the head of the Water Research Commission, a state-owned research unit. “Water is the single greatest constraint to our economic and societal growth, yet we do not reflect that in our long-term planning,” he says.
Ninety-eight percent of water is already allocated, but large-scale developments are still going ahead as if the water will flow as soon as the foundations are put down, he says.
This separation from reality has produced several problems for the water sector.
Jacques Laubscher, a water engineer at engineering consulting firm Gibb, says water is being treated as a service that must be rolled out rather than as a resource. “We do not stop and look at how it is water that is the constraint, not funding or desire.”
The biggest problem is that development happens first and then the water has to be provided to it, he says.
“We’re doing it the wrong way round and that means we keep extending our water footprint with no real solution as to how we will make ends meet.”
Several civil society groups have said this is best exemplified by the construction of the 4 800MW Medupi power station in the Waterberg district of Limpopo.
The area is water scarce and already has a power station. Farmers often go for several seasons without rainfall. But Eskom started building its coal-fired power station, and the water and sanitation department then had to make a plan to supply it with water.
Farmers are feeling the pressure of low rainfall with dams drying up and mealie crops on the verge of dying. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
That has come in the form of the Crocodile West transfer scheme, which takes water from Gauteng and sends it to Medupi. But this is not enough water and Eskom has said it will have to delay the construction of flue gas desulphurisation technology at the plant, which removes harmful gas from the plant’s emissions and is a condition of the World Bank loan for its construction.
But the bigger problems are in how water is valued. South Africa provides potable water to most citizens. Rand Water boasts some of the cleanest water in the world.
Other countries, especially those with similar water constraints, do not. Laubscher says this means water is not highly valued.
It is also not priced properly. “We have incredibly cheap water, which doesn’t reflect the huge cost of moving and treating it,” he says.
The drought could change this. The government is pushing through changes to water legislation, ostensibly to ensure that water is not wasted. But the changes will start a process of viewing water differently. Prices will go up, as will the fines associated with use beyond what is necessary.
Rand Water says half of Gauteng’s water is used on gardens and swimming pools.
Those who cannot afford water will still be protected, thanks to the free basic allowance of 25 litres a person a day.
The legislative changes will also start forcing people to pay for the water they use. In eThekwini, people are fined if their rainwater goes from the roof into the municipal sewerage pipes, because that means the water gets polluted and then has to be cleaned.
The targets of this change are large-scale polluters, particularly mines and municipalities, that traditionally do little to clean their water when it is released back into rivers. Other entities then have to pick up the cost of that cleaning.
Although critical, these moves will still only change behavioural patterns. They will not change the intrinsic value South Africa places on water, which is treated as an inexhaustible supply.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research predicts that climate change will create even more water insecurity.
Its models show rainfall shifting to an ever smaller part of the country, and coming in shorter and more violent spells. The total amount may stay the same, but it won’t soak into the soil as much or save crops.
Extreme weather events will also increase, particularly those driven by warming oceans. This year’s El Niño is already one of the strongest ever recorded, having warmed the Pacific Ocean by 3°C.
The South African Weather Service says its effect will last until late autumn at the earliest. With a record-setting spring seeing little rainfall and a dry summer, the service expects things to get worse in the coming months: “Drier and warmer conditions are expected to be extreme … and may worsen the current drought conditions the country is experiencing.”
This, then, could be a chance for a fundamental shift in South Africa’s relationship with water. Local water experts have long hailed the model of Singapore, the world’s most water-stressed country, which has no freshwater lakes or aquifers.
Half a century ago, its economy was much like South Africa’s, dependent on industry and extraction. But, driven by its water constraints, it invested heavily in education in a measured drive towards a service and technology economy. This, in turn, created an environment in which water is now captured and recycled.
Speaking during an exchange on the topic on an online forum, a senior municipal water official in KwaZulu-Natal recently bemoaned the lack of similar thinking in South Africa. “We just don’t have enough water and we don’t respect it. How do we expect to have a happy ending when we live in a fool’s paradise?”