by Samantha Barnes


Water Waste Not, Want Not

South Africans need to wise up! Unduly harsh in our assessment, you think? It is not an unfounded statement if we heed the water experts. Put in layperson’s terms, we are wasteful: we are using far too much water and are also wasting exorbitant amounts of this precious resource. 


Facts speak volumes (if you will excuse the pun). “The average per-person water use in the world is between 150 and 170 litres per person per day,” says Niel van Wyk, chief engineer for National Water Resource Planning in the Department of Water and Sanitation. “In [the] RSA, which is a dry country, the equivalent figure is in excess of 250 litres per person per day. We need to do some serious thinking.”

Addressing this challenge is not as simple as opting to shower instead of bath. Our nation’s dilemma is far broader. Among the issues that go hand in hand with our water dilemma are water distribution, political will and technical expertise. Also, water protests have been hot news of late.


What a Lot I Got – or Not?
The pressing question is whether we can meet our water needs into the future. Statistics don’t paint a pretty picture. According to the 2030 Water Resources Group, demand for water in South Africa is projected to reach 17.7-billion m3 by 2030, with over a third coming from households. Current supply is just over 15-billion cubic metres.


However, as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz: “The sun will come out tomorrow.” With sufficient will and long-term planning, South Africa will have enough water to meet its needs, but this outcome rests on critical factors (which we will get to later). What is encouraging is that the private sector has met voluntarily to address the problem of water supply.

The report issued by the 2030 Water Resources Group is the culmination of nearly two years of work. It involved collaboration by hundreds of experts, including government, development institutions, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), universities, industry, agricultural associations, irrigation suppliers, farmers and water-utility builders. Expert advice was also sought from overseas.

Tellingly, the report is captioned, ‘Charting our water future: An economic framework to inform decision making’. The 2030 Water Resources Group concluded that meeting the demand for water is possible at reasonable cost. However, in a resource-stretched country like South Africa, where rainfall is low, there are limited aquifers and heavy reliance has to be placed on significant transfers from neighbouring countries.

Mind the Gap!
Closing the growing gap between water supply and demand is possible, although it will be a considerable challenge. As the 2030 Water Resources Group stresses, the water challenges faced by South Africa, as Africa’s largest single economy, will, by extrapolation, have to be faced by most of the rest of the continent. A cautionary note: the report repeats the observation often heard in the ‘Peak Oil’ debate that business-as-usual approaches will not meet demand for raw water.


The Group concludes: “South Africa will have to resolve tough trade-offs between agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centres.” The authors recommend an “integrated economic approach to water resource management” based on the following principles: Agricultural productivity is a fundamental part of the solution. Efficiency in industry and municipal systems is critical. Quality and quantity of water are tightly linked. Most solutions imply cross-sectoral trade-offs. So, exciting times lie ahead…

“No Water,” We Cry
Protests about service delivery of water have been hot news of late. Niel van Wyk confirms that the cause can mostly be ascribed to the failure in the distribution of water rather than a water resource problem. He cautions that this should not be confused with drought-related problems experienced in parts of the country.


Everybody Has a Part to Play
In the words of Jacques-Yves Cousteau:“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” Engineer Niel van Wyk observes that we are unfortunately not at a stage where everybody is playing along in meeting future water supply. Nevertheless, he is cautiously hopeful. “We can survive the water supply requirements up to the medium term reasonably well, but then the recommendations and provisos need to be satisfied,” he explains.


A decline in technical skills remains a problem. The Department of Water and Sanitation has started receiving graduate trainees from universities in fair numbers, something not experienced in years. Niel’s hope is that these skills remain within the Department or within the water sector and that technical ability and skill are nurtured carefully. A promising sign is Treasury insisting on improved accountability and results in respect of funds allocated.

Water Wears a Sophisticated Hat
Many people equate water resources with dams. However, Niel stresses that most opportunities have been utilised, with the exception of the eastern seaboard of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, which have higher rainfall than the rest of South Africa. “Our sourcing of water will have to become more sophisticated,” he explains. Underutilised groundwater must thus play a bigger role, provided that we overcome the tendency of mismanaging groundwater.


Chief engineer for the southern region at the Department of Water and Sanitation, Isa Thompson, agrees. “Groundwater has to be managed very carefully. In South Africa, if people cannot see water, they use it.” She stresses that, with any aquifer, you can only extract water at a certain rate. What happens is that people overextract groundwater. Then, when levels drop, they see ground water as being unreliable.

The Fragility of Water
“The one thing we must remember is that we have the same water as from creation to today. We cannot make water. We must use it very, very carefully. The fresh water that we have forms only 0.001% of water that is available on the planet. Some is in icebergs and some is in groundwater. So we have enough water,” explains Isa Thompson.


“Opportunities like reuse of water, rainwater harvesting and desalination of water are fast becoming attractive options,” Niel observes. “Unfortunately, reuse of water and desalination come with an energy requirement that has to be seen in perspective. We currently do not have electricity in abundance, and offsetting increased energy requirements with green energy will have to form part of the consideration.”

Semantics – Using What We’ve Got
“We talk about water demand… The consideration should be how much water we actually require,” Niel says. “Can we still afford to irrigate water-hungry tropical kikuyu grass with water purified to drinking-water standards, in our gardens? In the domestic water use sector [currently about 30% of all water use in the RSA], arguably the fastest-growing water use sector in the RSA, much of our water is lost through poorly maintained distribution systems. In rural areas a water loss of 50% is not uncommon and even in metropolitan areas it is often unacceptably high.”


Isa recommends: “We have to start reusing water. Sewage water is being treated for use in irrigation and in Windhoek in Namibia it is being treated to potable standards. George, Beaufort West and Mossel Bay are doing the same, with the treated water mixed with groundwater, with no ill effects.”

Setting the Standard
In 2014, eThekwini Water and Sanitation, which serves the Durban metropolitan area in South Africa, was named the winner of the Stockholm Industry Water Award for its transformative, inclusive approach to providing water and sanitation services. Soon afterwards, Durban expanded its boundaries to include 3.5-million people, some living in poorly serviced rural areas with huge water and sanitation challenges. What must also not be forgotten is that the right of people to water is enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.


The eThekwini Municipality has faced these challenges head-on. In the past 14 years, 1.3-million additional people in greater Durban have been connected to piped water and 700 000 people have been provided with toilets. Access to basic water supply and sanitation is provided at no cost to poor families. eThekwini Water and Sanitation is at the forefront of exploring technical and social solutions, including a mini hydro-power project. The Municipality is also investigating solutions to convert urban wastewater for agricultural opportunities and to harvest rainwater.

Vaalharts is the largest irrigation scheme in South Africa at over 29 000 hectares. The canal system consists of 1 176 kilometres of concrete-lined canals and supports 1 040 irrigation farmers. The scheme provides industrial water for six municipalities. In 2010, Kobus Harbron’s work on water distribution management at Vaalharts Water resulted in his receiving the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) Award in 2010. Computerisation of the manual water administration system using digitised and electronically imported flow data saved 17.5-million m3 in a single year. Water orders are now captured on the system by water control officers, with volumes being quantified weekly instead of monthly. Canal leakages and breakages are also easily monitored.

Across the Border
Niel confirms that South Africa is doing well in managing cross-border water relations. Among the success stories are the bilaterally constructed and utilised dams (Driekoppies and Maguga) by South Africa and Swaziland on the Lomati and Komati rivers. The Interim IncoMaputo Agreement concluded between South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland in 2002 regulates water sharing by the member countries.


Water Resource Development Carries a Hefty Price Tag
South Africans don’t realise how scarce water is in our country. Isa Thompson confirms that we are starting to stretch our available resources to the limit. “Any further water resource development will come with a many billion dollars price tag – water reuse, desalination of seawater, importing water from far-away big central African rivers, etc.” Isa urges us all to halve our water consumption to stretch available resources. Further, she notes: “Losses in municipalities through wastage and old infrastructure is a serious problem that needs huge amounts of money to address.” Interesting times lie ahead. 



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