/ 5 October 2023

Senzo Mchunu: No growth or development without water

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Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu. (PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

South Africa’s water resources are under pressure and if the country is to meet the demands of the economy, society and ensure sufficient water for the environment, it needs to make strategic decisions and plan comprehensively and carefully.

This is according to Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, who wrote the preface of the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS-3). The blueprint for water resources management was approved by the cabinet last month and marks the third version of the strategy, which was first published in 2004 and then in 2013.

The NWRS-3, Mchunu said, sets out the strategy to ensure that water resources must be “protected, used, developed, managed and controlled sustainably and equitably”; and the department of water and sanitation “must support development and the elimination of poverty and inequality, and contribute to the economy and job creation”.

The dynamics of water, equity, development and growth are complex, where water resource management “lies at the heart of our aspiration to achieve growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction”, Mchunu said, adding that there can be no growth and development without water. “Water must be at the heart of all our planning, financing and governance frameworks.”

Reducing demand

In the report’s foreword, Sean Phillips, the director general of the water and sanitation department, said with South Africa’s growing population, and focus on economic growth and development, water security and healthy water ecosystems that support national imperatives, need to be ensured.

“Apart from the water demands of the economic sectors (energy, mining and agriculture), increasing urbanisation and industrialisation place enormous pressure on our scarce water resource in terms of management and allocation … While South Africa has well-developed water resources infrastructure, it is fast approaching full utilisation of available surface water yields and running out of suitable sites for new dams,” Phillips said.

Climate change outcomes in terms of rainfall and temperature will have a negative effect on water storage while water demand is likely to grow over the next 10 years, he said. “We need to find new ways of reducing water demand and increasing availability that move beyond ‘traditional engineering solutions’ of infrastructure development.” 

Ensuring a sustainable water balance requires a multitude of strategies, including water conservation and water demand management, further use of groundwater, desalination, water reuse, rainwater harvesting and treated acid mine drainage 

Given the constraints and demands on the resource, South Africa cannot afford practices that reduce supply, including pollution, inefficient water management practices, lack of infrastructure maintenance, unaccounted for water and poor governance. A new era of 

“advanced and smarter water management” is required, Phillips said.

Nelson Odume, the director of the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality in the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, told the Mail & Guardian: “The main problem that we have experienced in the [water] sector is that of implementation. 

“The NWRS-3 touches on a number of important issues in the sector, particularly in its forward-looking of consolidating the two pieces of legislation in the sector: the National Water Act and the Water Services Act. What is fundamental though, is the implementation.”

Climate crisis

On increasing water supply, the strategy document describes how South Africa has four internationally shared river basins that contribute 45% of the country’s total river flow. 

These are the Orange Senqu River shared with Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia; the Limpopo River with Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and the Inkomati River and the Maputo River are shared with Mozambique and eSwatini. 

“These resources must be shared equitably with these neighbouring states who also have increasing water needs due to growing populations and economies. This may affect the volume of water from the shared rivers that is available for South Africa,” it said. 

Climate change is projected to increase the variability of rainfall throughout the country, and reduced average rainfall is expected, particularly in the western part of the country. It may also increase the agricultural demand for water because of higher temperatures and reduce the country’s ability to rely on rain-fed agriculture. 

Water security at risk

Delays in the implementation of Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (to augment the Vaal River System for greater Gauteng); the uMkhomazi Water Project Phase 1 (to augment the uMgeni System for the KwaZulu-Natal coastal metropolitan region) and the augmentation of the Western Cape water supply system have significantly affected the water security of these areas. 

“The increasing gap between water supply and demand in South Africa is driven by over-consumption, over-allocation of water, inefficient use, wastage, leakage, inappropriate infrastructure choices (waterborne sanitation in arid areas), as well as population and economic growth,” it said. 

Water availability will decline further if the degradation of aquatic ecosystems, including wetlands, poor land use practices, high levels of water pollution and increase in invasive alien plants infestations, continues. 

New water mix

To balance supply and demand, South Africa must move from the current water mix which is strongly dominated by surface water, with some groundwater and return flows to a water mix that includes increased groundwater use and stormwater harvesting as well as reuse, desalination and treated acid mine drainage. 

Greater emphasis must be placed on the use of groundwater as it is not merely an additional supply of water; it is the only supply in most of the Northern Cape. “Since groundwater levels are also running low, better management of aquifers must be done including weekly monitoring of water levels to ensure water availability for future use.” 

Without demand management, currently planned infrastructure development and the broadening of the water mix will not be sufficient to balance supply and demand. 

“If the targets of reducing physical losses in municipalities are reached, as well as a reduction in the per capita consumption to the global average, in addition to the surface and groundwater supplies, and desalination, re-use and treated AMD [acid mine drainage], there may be a slight surplus available over the next 20-year planning horizon,” the report said. 
In the short-term, urgent mitigation should be put in place for municipalities who have water losses of 25% or higher.