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South Africans Cannot Afford To Ignore The Water Crisis

Changing peoples’ attitude to water usage and effectively managing the demand for water is critical, writes Sean Molloy, GIBB General Manager: Integrated Infrastructure Services.
Image: Sean Molloy Image: Sean Molloy

The preservation and efficient management of water has received increased priority by governments and corporate players globally. In South Africa, the drought crisis has highlighted the urgent need to conserve and manage water more effectively.

The Water Research Commission predicts that South Africa will demand 17% more water by the year 2030. The country’s water supplies are almost fully allocated, making it difficult for new enterprises to access water licences and placing a dampener on future economic growth.

Currently, up to 50% of water supplied to South African cities cannot be accounted for. This varies from between 30% and 50% in the metropolitan areas and between 40% and 60% in the smaller municipalities, amounting to an annual loss of about R7 billion worth of water as indicated in government’s nine-point plan.

This unaccounted water usage is largely as a result of water leaks and unmetered water usage.

According to the Water Research Commission, while South Africa’s post-1994 water legislation has been heralded as pioneering, there have been challenges in implementation. This is largely due to the legacy issues as a result of outdated water laws as well as the growing demands on South Africa’s existing water resources, intensified by population growth, rapid urbanisation, economic development and increased demand for higher levels of service.

There are solutions to South Africa’s water crisis, but they require committed collaboration between government and the private sector. The strategy needs to be two-pronged – firstly to reduce public demand for water and secondly to conserve the water already in the system.

Reduce public demand for water

Reducing public demand for water requires increasing the price for excessive water usage and educating the public on water-saving techniques. Whilst government has introduced initiatives to instil a water saving mind-set amongst South Africans, this does not seem to have had the desired outcome and efforts need to be redoubled, preferably with the help of the private sector.

South Africa could look to Botswana’s Project Somarela Thothi for a workable public private partnership (PPP) model. The programme was initiated in March 2015 to reduce water losses during Gaberone’s worst drought in 32 years.

A partnership was formed between the German Development Corporation (GIZ), Water Utilities Corporation and First National Bank Botswana Foundation with the aim of reducing water demand by implementing social and technical water loss reduction initiatives.

The social aspect focused on creating awareness around conserving water through promotional material, school awareness programmes and outreach initiatives, while the technical aspect focused on bulk metering and sectorisation to assess leakage and the potential for pressure management.

Conserve water in the system

The technical measures form part of the second prong of an effective water conservation and demand management strategy, that is, to focus on the conservation of water already in the system.

Leaks occur in the bulk and internal water distribution systems as well as water systems on private properties. One of the most effective ways to reduce leaks is to reduce the overall pressure within the network and conduct a leak detection and repair programme of the water distribution system.

In addition, it makes economic sense to repair leaks within households. Many households do not have the means or expertise to maintain their housing water system. There are successful examples of initiatives to address this, which also create multiple employment opportunities.

One such initiative by government was the training of 15,000 artisans and plumbers to repair leaking taps in their communities, with the first intake of 3,000 trainees recruited in the 2015/16 financial year.

Importantly, applying just one or two of the above-mentioned solutions will not be as effective as implementing all solutions together. To do this, the public sector might consider kick-starting the process with a three-year programme, calling for private sector involvement. To achieve a sustainable process, government would need to commit to allocating the savings achieved to the ongoing implementation of the programme.

Ultimately, South Africans cannot afford to ignore this country’s most threatened resource and government cannot bear the water burden alone. Water scarcity is a significant societal challenge that needs to be shared between governments, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and society as a whole.

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