Carpe Diem: Time to design a new water future

Dhesigen Naidoo, chief executive of the Water Research Commission

Dhesigen Naidoo, chief executive of the Water Research Commission

I wrote this during the 2017 International Water Association development congress in Argentina, where 2 000 delegates from 30 countries converged. There was consensus that globally, water security is declining, and that we have to do something together to avert the impending global water crisis. This is backed up by barometers such as the Global Risk Register compiled annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which concludes that the “water crisis has been constantly one of the top five risks to the global economy in recent times”.

This will come as no surprise to South Africans, as we have recently belly-crawled under the barbed wire that was the worst El Niño event in more than 20 years. Our recovery has been at best sluggish on the back of miserly post-drought rainfall patterns, so much so, that at least one major metropolitan area — the City of Cape Town — has designated a Day Zero, the dreaded signal for extreme water rationing, as the city reaches its highest level of water stress.

The consequences of the arrival of the Day Zero scenario in the Western Cape are too dire to contemplate. According to authorities in the Western Cape Province, this could result in around a 10% drop in agricultural output, which would in turn cost the economy up to R3.2-billion. The number of job losses in the agricultural sector could be up to 20 000, which would spell a disaster for the farming communities in the area. While the City of Cape Town represents an extreme, many South African cities and towns are just one poor rainfall season away from this worst case scenario.

Is this the “new normal”? There is sufficient research, including an examination of the last 100 years of rainfall data, to support the theory that southern Africa’s foreseeable future will be characterised by a lower than average precipitation, with longer drought episodes. Even more worrying is the change in rainfall modality; shorter, more intense episodes, liable to create floods. This not only heralds the continued water availability conundrum, but is also a severe threat to the existing infrastructure such as roads. Our transport infrastructure is designed for a very different rainfall pattern within a season. Potholes are not only a function of poor maintenance, but also of road design to manage and tolerate different, more moderate, rainfall episodes.

Two critical questions emerge. Firstly, are we trying to fix a 21st century problem with 20th century technology and 19th century operating rules? We continue to obsess with surface freshwater solutions when we have available to us some of the best technologies to treat wastewater and saline waters (either seawater or brackish and polluted inland sources) as “new” water sources, or, as the Singaporeans name them, “new taps”. We have remarkable science that enables safe, hygienic sanitation using less than half a litre of water per flush, less than a twentieth of the current standard. This enables up to a 30% water saving for every household in the country.

The second question beckons, when are we are going to act decisively? This is the WeiJi moment. We are explicitly clear regarding the Wei, or danger associated with this new normal. We need to spend more effort on the strategy to realise the Ji or opportunity associated with this crisis. We have the possibility of a turning point in our water fortunes. We have a chance to completely redefine the water management paradigm and in a manner that fundamentally and simultaneously improves energy and food security as well as engaging the water-energy-food nexus.

We have the chance to radically improve our trade balance, stimulated by a switch in our technology balance of payments. This can be achieved by the industrialisation of water and sanitation in South Africa as envisioned in the 2017 Industrial Policy Action Plan. We are well-positioned to develop a significant water private sector that has the potential to set up a manufacturing base and supply chain-produced goods and services to empower water and sanitation services in the new normal for the global market. These are possible solutions that can enable a 100% assurance of supply of quality water and universal dignified sanitation in a manner that creates wealth, sustainable livelihoods and enhances inclusive economic growth.

This is the reason we have to harness our collective thoughts and energy in the water sector to find lasting solutions to the challenges that face not only us in the south but the entire globe. Our recent water infrastructure investment platform was but one strategic initiative that began a process to bring together water experts and investors to craft a new thinking and future for water.

Dhesigen Naidoo is chief executive of the Water Research Commission

Towards a Water Sector Stewardship Programme

The next step

This summit will be followed on by a year-long Water and Sanitation Infrastructure Investment Stewardship Programme in 2018. The exact scope of work for the stewardship initiative will be informed by the discussions and key outcomes from this Water and Infrastructure Investments Summit.

The main objective of stewardship programme is to explore the opportunities and needs identified in this summit, which will be pulled into a series of focussed, issue-specific engagements, led by a range of different water sector organisations.

The overall intention of the stewardship process is to run a structured collaboration process that will undertake appropriate scanning, implement solutions and develop efforts to unlock barriers to water sector investment, while building partnerships to address sustainable and developmental investment in the sector.

Developments in the stewardship initiative will be communicated in the new year to all stakeholders who are willing to engage in discussions on different platforms that will ultimately shape and change the face of the water and sanitation sector in South Africa.