/ 20 October 2022

SA has 25 years to make one good decision on water

Animal River Pollution Water Soweto 7569 Dv
Photo: Delwyn Verasamy


South Africa is heading for an extremely water insecure and potentially conflict-ridden future over the next quarter of a century unless something is done to reverse the situation.

Three scenarios could unfold and all are dependent on the level of action the country decides to take now to deal with the crisis. 

South Africa is a water-scarce country and our water resources are facing constant pressure as a result of climate change, prolonged droughts, pollution, waste, inadequate infrastructure and the poor maintenance and management of existing infrastructure. There is also grave inequality in people’s access to water.

Water usage in this country is spread across three broad categories — the agriculture sector (63%), municipalities (26%) and the industrial sector (11%). 

It is estimated that about 50% of all abstracted potable water is lost to leaking pipes, dripping taps and infrastructure failures.

Numerous studies paint a bleak picture. One example is the 2018 report by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, which found that almost 65% of the country’s ecosystems are in a dire state of degradation. 

This could lead to a reduction of 17% of all potable water in the country by 2030.

Failing local governments have only exacerbated the problem. 

For example, the collapse of the Emfuleni wastewater treatment plant has meant that raw sewage was released, and continues to be released, into the Vaal River. 

In Makhanda, corruption has had a direct effect on the efficacy of the water treatment plants. 

More recently, poor planning and contingency plans in Gauteng has resulted in water-shedding in many parts of Johannesburg. 

The continuing trend in industrialisation and urbanisation of the Gauteng population is expected to place further pressure on the region’s water supply. 

Even if the Lesotho Highlands project is completed by 2027, as is promised by the department of water and sanitation, it would only add enough water to supply the Gauteng population until 2040.

If we continue on the present trajectory, then in 25 years we could be in a state of mayhem and destruction. In this scenario, there is no or very little change in our approach to water governance. 

Corruption would continue, pollution would be unchecked and construction mafias would continue to disrupt water infrastructure projects while existing infrastructure would continue to fail.

Scenario one 

In the first scenario, we could see water-shedding becoming more widespread with less clean water available. The cost of water will be extremely high because it will need extra processes to clean it. This will leave millions of people without adequate access to water, increasing inequality and poverty. 

The government will continue to overexploit and allow large users to control water resources, possibly resulting in these users — agriculture, mining and energy — diverting water sources and blocking access for others. 

This scenario could see increased social unrest, political instability and an indebted corrupt government.

Scenario two 

The next scenario, the middle-of-the-road scenario, could see some improvement but it will differentiate depending on where you live. In this scenario, climate change will be given more attention but not enough to deal with the effects of it, such as the development of action plans to mitigate and adapt to circumstances. A key challenge will be the increased migration as a result of climate change in the region and in the country.

Water leaks and failing infrastructure will still be a problem, as will corruption and mismanagement. But it could result in improved advocacy by civil society groups to hold people accountable and charge perpetrators.

The institutionalisation of water apartheid enclaves will result as wealthy areas will find alternatives to government supplies. 

There will be an increase in boreholes and poor regulation could lead to recharge of boreholes being affected. The divide will be largely defined along race and class lines.

The government will continue its focus on business-friendly policies, which affects the availability of clean water, resulting in the introduction of high water tariffs.

Scenario three: best case 

In the best-case scenario, we will have a short-, medium- and long-term approach to dealing with our water resources. The starting point will be the acknowledgement that we have a water crisis, and it is treated as an urgent situation.

Climate planning will be an integral part of the government’s approach to make the country work. There will have to be a strong integrated response to our water problems that includes planning and development, which takes into consideration the effect on ecosystems. 

In addition, the government, business and people across South Africa will need to come together to find solutions to the water crises. Any solution must include citizen scientists working with environmental and water issues.

In this scenario, we will have improved action plans to save water and prioritise water provision that is clean, accessible and affordable for the majority of the people in the country. 

The large users such as agriculture will have to change and develop agroecological approaches that use less water and fewer pesticides. In addition, a stepped tariff for large water users will be necessary.

A renewed commitment by all to deal with poor governance, corruption and mismanagement to hold those to account who pollute and exploit water resources will be required. And there will have to be a concerted effort to improve, replace and maintain infrastructure to reduce water loss.

The best-case scenario is not impossible to achieve in 25 years, but we need to accept that we have a water crisis now and that it is not a future, isolated problem. We cannot afford to put it off any longer. 

The water shortages and day zeros, the sewage and industrial effluent and limited access to clean water for millions of people should be evidence enough.  

We can change our trajectory to become a water-conscious country, but it means each individual has to become an active citizen to push for the best case rather than allow the government to take us down a path of no return.

Ferrial Adam is the project leader of the Water Community Action Network (WaterCAN), an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse. WaterCAN is building a network of citizen scientists in South Africa to monitor water and hold polluters accountable.