Over the last few weeks, there has been much speculation and debate on the water security of our country and the management of our available water resources. This is the result of the adverse drought conditions that affect large parts of our country currently, mainly, the provinces of Kwazulu-Natal, North-West, Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
Recent water supply disruptions in the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekhuruleni which constitute the economic hub of our country, further brought into question the ability of the state to guarantee water security and to manage a seeming ‘water crisis.’
The African National Congress post-unbanning and in preparation for a democratic South Africa, adopted the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) as a socio-economic policy framework designed to address the socio-economic imbalances brought about by the policies of the Apartheid regime.
The delivery of clean water and adequate sanitation are amongst the key fundamentals identified in the RDP as necessary social-services needed to reverse the consequences of separate development and to address the massive shortfall in social services for the majority.
Already, as far back as 1992, the RDP, as an ANC policy document, noted that ‘South Africa is a water-scarce country and that the existing limited water resources are also unevenly distributed.’ It further went on to establish a fundamental principle that ought to guide a democratic South Africa in this regard and that was – ‘Water Security for All!’
What the RDP said then, remains true for current day South Africa.
We remain a naturally water-strained country and are rated as the 30th driest country in the world. Our existing water resources remain unevenly distributed however, significant strides have been made to extend access to water to previously un-served communities.
Presenting a report recently on Development Indicators 2014, the government noted that the “the proportion of households accessing basic services has grown at an even faster pace, with 80% percentage of households accessing water” and the proportion of households accessing sanitation had also increased from 62% to 80%.
These are significant developments and a reflection on the commitment of the ruling party to deliver the necessary social services to our people.
Over the last two decades, a number of factors have become apparent as threats to national, regional and global water security.
Realities of climate change coupled with global warming have introduced new hydrological trends that have placed the water security of our country and the entire global community at the centre of national and global priorities.
The United Nations General Assembly recently adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’S) 2015. The adoption of Water as a stand-alone SDG Six (6) marked a very significant and qualitative change from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that looked more into the quantity rather the quality of the targets and indicators. This is an indicator that the world has accepted that water is a scarce resource that requires protection across states and that it cannot be business as usual. It is a realization that more must be done to protect, share and use water wisely for sustainable growth.
South Africa is not immune to these regional and global threats that threaten the water security of states and the global community as a whole.
The recent droughts that have affected our country, have not only impacted negatively on our country but our neighbouring countries, with whom we share water basins and resources are experiencing similar difficulties and in some instances, worse conditions.
From a water supply perspective, water security in our country must be viewed in line with the following service situations;
Firstly, there are users served by large regional water supply schemes comprising major dams and large bulk infrastructure networks. These systems have a higher assurance of water supply due to multi-year storage and well-developed inter-basin water transfer processes. These are often responsible for the supply of water to our economic nodes. Currently, 238 such schemes exist nationally and are sitting on a positive water balance of 66% full.
Secondly, you have users served by local water supply schemes consisting of smaller dams and/or groundwater resources. These are more vulnerable to drought and as such, in the areas affected by drought, it is mainly such schemes that have been affected.
Lastly, we have users with stand-alone or rudimentary water supply, such as individual boreholes, rainwater tanks, springs and run-of-river abstractions. These are mostly located in the rural parts of our country and in many instances, in provinces such as Kwazulu-Natal, Free State, Limpopo and North West, have been adversely affected by the drought situation.
Overall, the drought has affected an estimated 2,7 million households across the country, amounting to an estimated 18% of our total national population. If one looks at the 1, 628 water supply schemes in the country, 173 are currently affected by drought.
The water restrictions introduced by the Metropolitan Municipalities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekhuruleni in the past two weeks, led many to believe we were now in a full blown national water crisis that was evidence of the government’s failures to manage our water resources efficiently.
Fact is, these municipal areas experienced a significant heat-wave attributed to the natural phenomenon known as El-Nino that in turn led to an increased demand on the water supply system within the area.
What this meant, is that the reservoirs that supply the areas concerned were pumping higher than normal levels of water to meet the unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, when such occurs, it affects the ability of the reservoirs to build up the required pressure needed to pump water to high lying areas within the cities concerned. This was neither a reflection of drought in Gauteng nor of a collapse in the water security of these economic nodes of our country.
The Vaal River system which supplies these areas, is a complex and integrated system that has various water transfer options designed to guarantee consistent availability and supply of water to Gauteng as a province. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is one of the key contributors of water in the system and the department of water and sanitation on an annual basis, undertakes a three-year view of the water security of the system to satisfy demand, both current and future.
However, for Gauteng and the country as a whole, it is important to emphasize that the need to save water and to use it wisely has never been more urgent and necessary as is currently. This scarce resource that is a contributor to our food security and energy is irreplaceable and must be used sparingly.
How we have previously related to water and utilized it must change for the benefit of ourselves and future generations. Innovative solutions must assist us to transform water behavioural patterns in our households, communities and businesses.
There needs to be a societal drive to save water and to use it wisely. Shorter showers, smaller cisterns, bucket washes for cars and drip irrigation for plants must be the norm as we move forward.
The department of water and sanitation has spoken of a ‘Sanitation Revolution’ and in it, it has said that – it’s not all about flushing!
Our future property developments must look into to alternative sanitation solutions that will be considerate to the national effort to save water and make use of as little to no water as possible for sanitation, in high, middle and low-income areas.
The agricultural sector must also look into ways and means to minimize the use of quality drinking water for irrigation. Currently, 60% of water resources available are used in agriculture and this requires further interrogation to ascertain if the allocated water is indeed used as stated and if no new methods could be investigated to promote use of alternative water sources and reduced volumes.
These are but some of the few interventions that would make significant contributions towards our national water security.
Currently, not all South Africans have access to water and efforts in this regard have been intensified to ensure that this is achieved and that such water meets the required quality.
As we roll-out universal access to water, emphasis is also being placed on the capacity of local municipalities to operate and maintain water treatment works. This must be done to guarantee that communities have consistent supply of water and that the quality standards of such water are met and maintained.
We must pride ourselves as a country that we remain amongst the group of countries in the world where you may drink water straight from the tap. Our water quality remains consistent and such must be sustained going forward.
We must conclude by stating that whilst some parts of our country are genuinely in a water crisis, it is premature to speak of a national water crisis. South Africa is not in a water crisis.
Our water security as a country is intact and no immediate or medium term threats to such security are foreseen.
Government is investing significant resources in the development of new water supply schemes, renovation of existing dams and schemes and maintenance of infrastructure. This is in an effort to ensure services are extended to the unserved and to guarantee capacity to meet future needs of our country for all.
Water Security for all will be achieved and to sustain it, we must all must take responsibility for water by using it wisely and sparingly.
Comrade Nomvula Mokonyane is a member of the ANC NEC and Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation