Leaders should channel SA towards low water economy

The role of water in economic growth and development is increasingly being acknowledged both in South Africa and globally. Just last week at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Cape Town, the Water Affairs Department launched a major partnership with the private sector.

This innovative public-private partnership is aimed at addressing the challenges of closing the gap between water demand and supply that is projected to be 17 percent in South Africa by 2030.

Leadership in the water sector is therefore starting to emerge, which will hopefully lead to action on the ground.

However, what has remained unclear is what holistic approaches will be followed on the ground to lead us on the path to a “low water economy”, where economic growth can be attained within the confines of our limited water resources.

To understand the lack of clarity in our water resource management approaches, the departmental budget speech delivered a few weeks ago by Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa was instructive.

In her address, the minister referred to her department’s commitment to “adopt an integrated approach to water provision” which sought “to provide an unbroken chain of water supply from source to tap and to ensure the sustainability of our water usage”.

But there was no mention of investment in maintaining the health of our catchments – the very source of our water. Billions have been allocated towards physical infrastructure but there was hardly any mention of ecological infrastructure.

South Africa, being a water-scarce country with high variability in rainfall patterns, requires substantial investment in storage infrastructure to improve the assurance of supply.

It is important to emphasise, however, that water security should not be equated with infrastructure development alone.

To fully secure a country’s water supply also requires investment in the natural systems that are responsible for generating that water in the first place.

The water cycle is a complex system and water resource management needs to reflect this complexity.

There are no “quick fixes” – such as the proposed desalination plants referred to by the minister, two of which are currently out of commission. The limits of our current energy supply and rising energy costs make desalination an unfavourable option in the long run.

Also of importance is the need for co-operative governance in protecting our critical water sources. We were pleased to hear that the ministry is working very closely with municipalities to address challenges of water quality, infrastructure maintenance and capacity building.

However, the department needs to extend the same spirit of co-operative governance to its sister departments, especially that of Mineral Resources.

A study of catchments in Mpumalanga shows there are applications for mining rights in 40 percent of the total area of the catchments responsible for generating the highest water yield in that province. If these rights are granted, it will compromise water security in Mpumalanga.

The Department of Water Affairs needs to take a proactive stance in protecting the critical catchments responsible for water security in the country, by working closely with sister departments to ensure that these water factories are protected.

Were we not currently dealing with the legacy of mining on our hydrological systems – in the form of rising acid mine drainage – we could perhaps be forgiven for not understanding the full effects that mining will have on these systems, but this is clearly not the case.

In conclusion, it is commendable that the department is engaged in long-term infrastructure planning to close the gap between water supply and demand.

This will help avert knee-jerk reactive interventions, which are likely to be less effective and more ecologically damaging.

However, for South Africa to take its rightful place as a leader in the dawn of the new reality for Africa, we encourage the minister to lift her gaze from engineering infrastructure as the panacea to our water challenges; and look to the mountains, watersheds and ecological systems that are critical for sustainability.

We can never reach water security without first securing our natural ecological infrastructure.

n Mao Amis is the manager of the WWF Catchment Stewardship Programme.

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