/ 24 March 2023

Risk of water crisis looms – UN

Water Crisis
Scarce: People fill up water containers for home use from a well near Sudan’s most populous city, Omdurman, on 21 March, a day before Unesco’s World Water Day, to focus attention on clean water and the sustainable use of water resources. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/Getty Images

Water is too precious in South Africa to continue to allow the amount of pollution, mismanagement and disregard with which it is treated, said a leading water activist.

Ferrial Adam, the manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), was speaking at a webinar on World Water Day titled “clean water is everyone’s right”. Outa hosted the webinar together with Lawyers for Human Rights.

There is global concern about both the quantity and quality of water and these same concerns apply to South Africa, which is already a water-scarce country, receiving an average rainfall of less than 500mm, while the global rainfall average is 850mm. 

“If you know South Africa, you would know there are parts of South Africa that are not receiving much [rainfall] at all,” Adam said, adding that climate change would make it that places like Northern Cape would get drier. 

She warned that as water became more scarce, so there would be a move to privatise water. “That is something we need to guard against because that’s the direction we’re heading as a country.” 

Adam said what could spark “water wars” in the country is “where you’ve got the middle class able to drop boreholes while poor people don’t have access and there is going to be that clash.” 

A water movement needed to be built before the country gets to that point, she said, adding that citizens need to be the eyes and ears that monitor water resources and hold polluters accountable.

“We are killing off ecosystems; we do not have enough water and we will be experiencing more and more drought, deepening the crisis, and making us more vulnerable,” Adams said. “It’s estimated we won’t have enough water in this country by 2030.”

Inequality in people having clean water at their homes is another problem. “The department [of water and sanitation] will go to the United Nations and to New York and say we can boast 90% access to water. But in reality only about 46% of people in this country have taps in their homes,” she said.

“We’ve got high levels of pollution from the mining industry, the agricultural industry and chemical industries. Today there was an image of bright blue water flowing in Alexandra along the Jukskei River. Nobody knows where it’s coming from … there is a lack of enforcement.”

Criminal charges have been levelled at Sasol for its unlawful disposal of hazardous waste containing vanadium, diethanolamine and potassium carbonate into the Vaal River system. Former employee Ian Erasmus, who blew the whistle, told the webinar that WaterCAN had conducted water tests at a river near Sasol in Secunda, finding trace elements of vanadium in the water and more in the soil. 

Adams said Sewage pollution makes the government the biggest polluter of the country’s water resources. “The department of water and sanitation must adequately deal with the pollution at the local government level. ” We want them to charge municipal managers. There is no point charging the whole municipality because that’s our taxpayers money.”

She added that mismanagement and corruption plague the water sector. “Corruption is not just a government issue, it’s also a private sector issue,” she said of the development of a water tanker mafia that is breaking infrastructure so they can continue getting deals to supply water.

Mark Heywood, the editor of Maverick Citizen, told the webinar: “It’s often struck me that while everybody is worrying about electricity and Eskom and the breakdown of infrastructure and the lack of planning in relation to electricity, the same thing is happening to our water infrastructure, it’s just that people haven’t woken up to that.” 

Palesa Maloisane, of the environmental rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said that many constitutional rights in the Bill of Rights overlap with and support the right to water and sanitation. “The right to water intersects with environmental rights and is an enabling right for the enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to health and safety. This right to water is a shared competency on a national, provincial and local government level,” Maloisane said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and UN-Water warned in the latest UN World Water Development Report that there is an “imminent risk” of a global water crisis. It was released at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York this week, the first major conference of the UN dedicated to water since 1977. 

Between two and three billion people worldwide experience water shortages. These shortages will worsen in the coming decades, especially in cities, if international cooperation on how water is used and managed is not boosted, the report found.

 Two billion people do not have safe drinking water and 3.6  billion don’t have safely managed sanitation. The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to double from 930  million in 2016 to 2.4  billion people in 2050. 

According to the report, water scarcity is becoming endemic because of the local effect of physical water stress, coupled with the acceleration and spreading of freshwater pollution. 

“As a result of climate change, seasonal water scarcity will increase in regions where it is currently abundant — such as Central Africa, East Asia and parts of South America — and worsen in regions where water is already in short supply — such as the Middle East and the Sahel in Africa.”

Poor water quality in low-income countries is usually linked to low levels of wastewater treatment, whereas in higher-income countries runoff from agriculture is a serious problem. More extreme and prolonged droughts are also stressing ecosystems, “with dire consequences for both plant and animal species,” the report said.