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Share Picks, South Africa

Dry, The Beloved Country

Business-as-usual processes place national economy at risk. Why? Because sanitation is the most important medical advancement in the last 150 years, according to the British Medical Journal. And, besides this, the reliable, safe supply and removal of water is crucial for the economic well-being of cities and nations. Yet South Africa’s behaviour towards water management reveals a flippant disregard for its value and the danger posed by an insecure supply.

SA, among the 40 driest countries, has allocated almost all of its water and so new water sources will need to be found to maintain even a modest level of economic growth.

SA, one poor rainfall season away from Day Zero

In Cape Town recently, Day Zero has been delayed by national government diverting agriculture’s surplus water to residents. If Cape Town were to run out of water, the crisis would quickly balloon to a national emergency as massive outward of migration would “drive up water use in other parts of the country and increase the dangers of overexploitation,” said Zachary Donnenfeld, a senior researcher at the African Futures and Innovation Programme.

Beyond the widespread dehydration, a shrinking agriculture sector, investor panic and possible security implications of Donnenfeld’s scenario, Dhesigen Naidoo, Chief Executive of the Water Research Commission continues the dire prediction: the 10% decrease in agriculture yield would wipe out 20,000 jobs and decimate farming communities. “While the City of Cape Town represents an extreme, many South African cities and towns are just one poor rainfall season away from this worst case scenario,” he said.

In 2014, 2016 and now again in 2018, new projected domestic water demand and supply advisory reports are released for South Africa which read like introductions to apocalyptic science-fiction plots as a Day Zero scenario in rural areas tips the fragile balance in urban areas. 

Three systemic problems in SA water sector

South Africa cannot seem to reduce usage, for several reasons. Consider these numbers:

235: Firstly, South Africa’s careless water culture means that the average individual daily usage is 235 litres per person per day, way above the global average of 173 litres. This figure is likely to be far higher in SA suburbs, considering that easy access to pressurised water means that wealthier households use exponentially more than those who collect it with containers on the outskirts of the city.

2 in 3: Another national trend is not to treat and reuse waste water. In 2017, four years after the Department of Water and Sanitation ceased publishing the Blue and Green Drop reports, detailing the condition of treatment facilities, the NGO AfriForum found a 100% increase in the number of facilities that failed to meet national water quality standards, to now include two-thirds of local treatment plants. These failures lead to significant health risks to nearby communities, where girl children are statistically worst affected by polluted water as they are often the weakest members in the community.

41: On average, 41% of the nation’s municipal water is lost through leaks and is considered non-revenue water as it cannot be billed for, the Water and Sanitation Department said in 2017. In 2016, leaks were found to equate to a R7-billion revenue loss each year. Cape Town has held that number to a commendable 15%, but even with techniques such as pressure demand management and increased efficiencies, it was not enough, and farmers had to take the Day Zero hit so that the city’s residents didn’t have to.            

The SA government cannot afford water maintenance

Smaller municipalities across South Africa have fallen further and further behind in their ability to repair or replace aging infrastructure. And as Ian Palmer, a director of development consultancy PDG, put it in 2011: “The problem with rehabilitation is that if you do not keep up with it, the cost of doing the work, when this eventually becomes possible, just escalates.”

Currently, the Department of Water and Sanitation estimates the investment gap over 10 years varies from R330 billion on new infrastructure to up to R1 trillion if all infrastructure maintenance, upgrades and planned initiatives are considered.

Municipalities owe R7 billion on their water and sanitation bill, but are unable to pay; in part because they carry total debts of about R43 billion to various creditors. According to Treasury’s chief director for local government analysis, Jan Hattingh, households and citizens owe R83 billion to their municipalities, commercial entities owe R27 billion, and various state institutions owe R7.4 billion. The water and sanitation department is R4 billion in the red, and National Treasury has recently significantly reduced their overdraft facility.

It is clear that former Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane did not expect municipalities to pay their bills, or that she would cut supply for non-payment; but in November 2017 appealed for private sector help at a water infrastructure investment summit, despite there being no “new money in the fiscus”.

Overexploitation of rivers means less water for dams

South Africa is clearly over-exposed by its dependency of surface water. The normal water cycle means that rain charges the rivers which fill the dams. However, as climate change and mismanagement dry out parts of the country, dams are not recharged, leaving levels perilously low. In addition, the degradation of water sources like catchment areas, wetlands and marshes, means that less water flows through into rivers, and problems around this reduced flow are compounded by the heavy extraction by surrounding commercial and agricultural users.

Significant investment and strong political will to break the downward spiral of South Africa’s water supply is critical, and will work best if there is partnership with civil society.

Experts consider a 20% shortfall by 2030 likely

The threat of South Africa having a 17% water supply shortfall in the next decade is very real, the Water and Sanitation Department told Parliament, with the predicted economic insecurity negatively impacting the economy.

Discussing the new report, A delicate balance: water scarcity in South Africa, Donnenfeld concedes that while no one can be sure how much rain will fall, it is abundantly clear that South Africa is living beyond its water resources, and the problem is becoming more expensive to fix by the day.

Some simple answers to systemic issues are that through making water more expensive to use through tiered pricing, new building codes, increasing waste water treatment, using more groundwater in agriculture and, importantly, by moving away from coal-fired power plants, “the country can bring its water sector back into balance”, Donnenfeld said.

Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign an early warning for the national economy

A clear result of Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign is that increased demand has pushed the city authorities and its residents to a place where both need to improve their water habits – dramatically. Just how successful this “new normal” will be, is to be seen in headlines and whether or not the taps stay open.

Cape Town’s dry-run of a Day Zero scenario played out to a reasonably happy ending. The lesson for national government, and the officials at treasury, will hopefully precipitate action sooner rather than later.



Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is an independent stakeholder management consultant working from Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter: @cameron_an.

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