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SA’s water crisis won’t pass with El Niño

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The country continues to face the most severe drought in over two decades, where five out of the nine provinces – namely the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the North West – have been declared disaster areas. However, the stark reality is that climate change and inadequate infrastructure will continue to affect water security, long after the drought ends.
According to Peter Townshend, senior engineer at WSP   Parsons Brinckerhoff, Structures, Africa: “Climate change, and particularly El Niño, has caused a noticeable increase in surface temperatures that led to increased evaporation, in addition to increased water consumption by people attempting to remain cool and hydrated, and maintain crops and gardens. This has reduced the country’s stored water reserves, which had already been undermined by the lack of rain. Moreover, while some relief is expected from March onwards when El Niño moves on, experts believe that broader patterns, such as weather and yearly rainfall, will be altered.”

General projections demonstrate that, beyond the current drought and El Niño cycle – as a result of a recurring phenomenon, characterised by below-normal rainfall in parts of the southern hemisphere – yearly rainfall for Southern Africa is expected to decrease. However, the outlook is not quite uniform for South Africa as, while the general forecast predicts reduced water supply for much of the country, there is some uncertainty as to whether there will be a decrease or increase in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country.

“To win back any kind of water security we need to be able to store more water – and this demands significant focus on improving the country’s water infrastructure,” says Townshend. “Currently government is squeezed for money and skills to build new dams. However, if a multi-layered approach can be taken to upgrade and raise our existing dams, we would be able to increase the country’s water storage capacity and water supply by approximately 20% to 30%.”

KPMG infrastructure and major projects associate director, Antonino Manus, agrees and states that, “Approximately 37% of South Africa’s water losses are as a result of failing water supply infrastructure. However, to understand the big picture, we also need to take into consideration the state of neglect across all the layers of the country’s water supply infrastructure. For instance, and despite reconciliation strategies compiled by the Department of Water and Sanitation or water demand management plans commissioned by local municipalities, municipal reticulation infrastructure is outdated and failing – where infrastructure upgrades are slow to implement.”

Manus notes that this is partially owing to inadequate funding and technical capacity, but also applauds government’s efforts to address water infrastructure problems by creating programmes such as the War on Leaks, reallocating funds to address insufficiencies and implementing peer review sessions among municipalities and water authorities. “Though more can still be done, as we’ve seen in this crisis over recent months, government and business have been forced to address water infrastructure funding and while this should continue, there is also room for more public-private collaboration on; infrastructure planning in relation to urbanisation and population growth, project execution, more proactive asset management planning and, in addressing critical societal attitudes and behavioural changes,” says Manus.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Ernest Mahlaule, President, Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), believes that while there are tough days ahead and we can expect harsher restrictions, price increases and possibly even sanctions or fines for perpetrators on restrictions,  the plight of the water crisis has also given rise to innovation adoption and new business and industry opportunities.

“Similar to the growth we saw in ‘green’ or renewable industries that exploded following the power crisis and load-shedding that the country experienced in 2008, the current water crisis certainly creates a demand-supply market for entrepreneurs and businesses who are able to bring savvy water sparing solutions to the local market,” says Mahlaule. “South Africa is classified as a chronic water-stressed country, as the thirtieth driest country in the world, which means that we will continue to need sustainable solutions to reduce consumption and recycle water resource. Water solutions companies arising out of the current water crisis would therefore be sustainable in the long-term.”

Water solutions providers may innovate toward more cost-effective approaches for water conservation, purification and recycling. “This will provide more options to the market that will, through increased competition, have a positive impact on pricing for consumers and businesses,” says Mahlaule. “If we just look at desalination of sea water, for example, while historically this has been an expensive solution it could still deliver a huge water resource that would address most of the country’s water scarcity challenges. It would also create avenues to develop new technologies and grow local manufacturing of the various pumps, valves, turbines and chemicals used in desalination processes, possibly extending into exporting these products. There have already been talks about these kinds of innovations – which would also bode significant socioeconomic benefits through growth in industry, job creation and skills development.”

Linked to attainable alternative solutions to the water shortage in the country, Interwaste – an integrated waste management company – believes that 100% of effluent water can be recycled, if done properly, leaving a large bank of water available, which previously may not have been considered as ‘safe’ for the environment or community.

Alan Willcocks, CEO at Interwaste, says: “The treatment of grey water or effluent water, alone, can result in significant resources that can be redistributed into the environment and to replenish rivers and catchments in our water infrastructure networks. The technology today is so advanced that effluent can even be treated further to potable or drinking water for areas where water is in short supply – which is critical in times such as these were additional water resources are desperately required. That being said, however, the quality of water is as critical as quantity. Where, should the quality be of a low standard, then quantity won’t matter – and contaminated drinking water is of no use to the people or communities that need it.

“Given the shortage of fresh and drinkable water, water recycling and re-use plays a pivotal role in driving forward sustainable solutions that will enable the longevity of South Africa’s water supply. The treatment and reuse of waste water needs to become a higher priority consideration on the national agenda to ensure that we are constantly replenishing our water resources, wherever possible.”

Effective waste management within the communities that border the country’s main water resources is also critical in the water management and preservation hierarchy, where water contamination as a result of un-disposed waste is a real problem in South Africa.

“If we consider the Jukskei River in Johannesburg for example, the contamination that has resulted in the requirement for many clean-up efforts and substantial funding to restore the quality, could have been significantly reduced if the waste within the communities that border it was better managed,” says Willcocks. “This type of example is indicative of the dire need for the private and public sector to work together in creating sustainable solutions beyond mere water treatment but in looking at the source of the problem as a starting point.

“The actions we take today will aid the country’s water security in the future as well as that of a growing population, such as ours, who can as a result  have access to suitable drinking water – every day,” Willcocks says.

  • CharlieTango

    With reference to comments from Alan Wilcocks of Interwaste, apparently according to residents of Midrand (Midstream, Randjesfontein, Glen Austin etc) the Interwaste site in Olifantsfontein is spewing out toxic gases on a regular basis. Apparently the green scorpions are “looking into the matter”, but the pollution continues unabated say local residents.