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Valuing water in a changing climate is crucial for the future of South Africa

In some parts of South Africa, washing your hands under running water, taking a quick shower, or even flushing the toilet is a luxury. 

More than three million people in South Africa do not have access to a basic water supply, and in the face of climate change, we need to do more to build resilient water and sanitation systems and protect and improve the management of freshwater resources for the benefit of all people.

Climate change and increased demand for water across multiple sectors have already depleted surface-water stores throughout southern Africa. In fact, studies predict that by 2025 the region will have insufficient water supplies to meet human and ecosystem needs, resulting in increased competition for scarce resources, constrained economic development, and declining human health. Indeed, South Africa’s second national water resources strategy and its national development plan recognise that water is the primary arena in which South Africa is experiencing the effects of climate change.

Wate plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the planet and promoting human dignity. How all the relevant actors manage this precious resource could determine the destiny of South Africa and future generations as the world adapts to a changing climate. At the recent G7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting, the newly appointed administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAid), Samantha Power, said, “Like Covid-19, the climate crisis threatens every inch of progress we make in efforts to build long-term prosperity and secure the individual dignity of the communities we serve.” It is also why President Biden’s administration is focusing on addressing climate change, both domestically and abroad.

I am also reminded of the value different actors bring to the table in tackling the challenges we face at the intersection of water and climate. Governments at both the national and municipal levels, nongovernmental organisations, regional institutions, international development partners and the private sector all have roles to play to advance South Africa’s water security, management of water resources and delivery of water and sanitation services. 

But how well are we working together and capitalising on our respective strengths? Together, we must embrace sustainable access to safe water supply and sanitation as an essential tool for promoting public health, eradicating extreme poverty and strengthening resilience to climate change. 

We must work with municipalities to improve service delivery and implement best practices. We must take steps to close financing gaps for water infrastructure – estimated to exceed R333-billion by 2030. 

We must harness science, technology, and innovation to improve our understanding of the dynamics of water supply and demand and test new ideas. And we must promote integrated, landscape-scale approaches to managing shared water resources that recognise the interconnectedness of ecosystems, people and livelihoods in a changing climate.

The US government is partnering with the government of South Africa, regional water governance institutions and the private sector to address these challenges. For example, we supported the City of Mbombela to negotiate effectively with its private concession partner to drive water and sanitation service improvements in peri-urban areas currently suffering from intermittent water supply, high levels of non-revenue water losses and lack of adequate sanitation. The new public-private partnership agreement will result in a five-fold increase in water and sanitation capital investment. 

We also helped the City of Cape Town’s water department to strengthen its customer relationship management practices and develop an action plan of strategic reforms to increase revenue collection, enabling the city to perform maintenance, reduce leaks and ensure a sustainable water supply. The US government is currently assisting the department of water and sanitation to develop South Africa’s first ever national faecal sludge management strategy, which will speed up progress towards safely managed on-site sanitation. 

Finally, we are working with the Limpopo Watercourse Commission to address challenges related to the development, utilisation and conservation of the scarce water resources of the Limpopo River, on which more than 15-million South Africans rely for their water needs.

Addressing the challenges at the intersection of water and climate change must be a collective effort. Indeed, no single government, institution, community, or business can solve these problems on its own. Let us work together to build new, strategic partnerships so we can collectively tackle these issues, as the lives of all people and our future depend on it.

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Rebecca Krzywda
Rebecca Krzywda is USAid’s Southern Africa acting mission director at the US Mission to South Africa

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