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Against the tide

Could more water shortages be looming?

CAPE TOWN – Turning on a tap is so simple and easy that it’s hard to think of water being embroiled in politics and crisis. But with the world’s population forecast to reach 9bn by 2050 and with more people and less water to go around, it could become the pivotal challenge of the next generation.

Water is being called the new oil, with experts predicting that water could become the kind of precious commodity that oil became in the 20th century.

In South Africa, one of the 30 driest countries in the world, we’re still battling to get water to the people who need it. Despite the Constitution stipulating that everyone has a right to access clean drinking water, several million people in South Africa still have no taps or running water in or near their homes.

Many rivers are filthy no-go areas and huge carriers of disease. Municipalities have been blamed for frequently pushing sewerage into rivers.

The cold fact is that people’s lives are at stake.

Over 16 000 people die in South Africa every year from diseases linked to diarrhoea.

The Southern Cape has been shrivelled by drought of late, with motorists recently dropping off five litre bottles of water for parched residents in Beaufort West.

And in the long run, experts warn that the western half of the country could gradually get drier.

A recent seminar held by the Goedgedacht Forum in Cape Town brought together a range of activists and experts who are passionate about saving water, but are struggling to keep the debate afloat. With Aids, unemployment and crime topping the list as our great challenges in South Africa, preserving water is seen as something of a Cinderella issue.

Government’s Water Affairs is also perceived by many as a somewhat insignificant department. 

The chief executive of the Water Institute of Southern Africa, Junior Potloane, believes people need to be convinced to view water as a pivotal issue. “We need to persuade individuals to use water differently – and send clearer messages to politicians, so that they realise the urgency.”

Provinces like the Free State have underspent on infrastructure desperately needed by the people, says Linda Stewart, Professor of Law at North-West University. And in the town of Parys where she lives, the water quality from the Vaal River is so poor that almost everyone that can afford it has resorted to drinking bottled water. 

Some municipalities have bucked the trend. Five billion rand has been allocated to replace the water pipes in Johannesburg – and the city is moving ahead with the project.

Residents in towns like George and Hermanus have heeded calls to save water.

With water shortages and severe restrictions, they’ve had to cut back. Jessica Wilson, the Programme Manager for the Environmental Monitoring Group, says the communities there have pulled together and are critically aware of the need to save water.

Not so in Cape Town, she says. “In Cape Town, there’s a massive aversion to saving water.”

Caron von Zeil, the director of water preservation advocacy group, Reclaim Camissa, says municipalities like Cape Town should be doing more to quantify their water sources.

She claims that the city hasn’t done a thorough audit of its streams, rivers and water sources since 1897 and that there are springs gushing under the streets. “There’s no record of how much water is wasted under the city streets.”

Saul Levin, who used to work at the Department of Water Affairs, believes the government should look into earlier triggers for looming water shortages.

“Does the department issue a water shortage notice when a dam is at 40% of its capacity? A level should be worked out and the triggers should come earlier.”

That way, you can also hike public awareness.

Wilson suggests that municipalities consider rationing water and re-think how we save water, price it and pay for it.

The ongoing worries about acid mine drainage and the role of industry in preserving water is a weighty issue. Potloane believes both a stick and carrot approach is needed. He suggests that government consider introducing subsidies for companies that save water. At the same time, companies who waste and pollute water should be held accountable through fines and “the polluter pays principle”.

There was general agreement that South Africa has a very good legislative framework, but that it unravels at the implementation level.

Consumers are also not very plugged into water issues. Caron believes there are simple things that consumers should do. On a peripheral level, she’s keen for people to veer off the trendy habit of drinking mineral water from plastic and glass bottles. “It costs 11 litres of water to produce a half litre bottle of mineral water. The industry is growing in South Africa and internationally, with a 12% average annual growth in the world’s bottled water industry. “The government should also consider subsidising people to replace old toilets that sound like they use half a river of water when you flush them.”

In this country, with more immediate political, crime and joblessness problems, it’s easy to sweep water aside. But if we don’t look after it now – we could be in big trouble in future.

*Kim Cloete is an experienced journalist with a keen interest in the political economy. Before pursuing a career as an independent journalist, she spent time as a television journalist and later Parliamentary Editor for SABC Radio and TV News. Kim was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 2005/06 and has received several national and international awards for her work.

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