JOHANNESBURG – According to the Water Efficiency Report released by ActionAid South Africa on Tuesday, big business should be taking the lead in helping to deal with the country’s water crisis. Because of the threat that water scarcity problems pose to both the social and economic stability of the republic, it urges industry to become involved, at least as much as government, in addressing the issue.
Perhaps there is even a space for a water innovation industry to sprout, much as the renewable energy industry has burgeoned in the face of policy uncertainty and pressing need.
“Companies, whether they are big, small or medium, are all going to be affected by the water crisis one way or another,” says water expert Anthony Thurton, who contributed to the report. “Some of them are going to be affected negatively and they’re going to either ignore it – in which case they will become victims of the situation – and others are going to be very progressive and very positive about it, and they are going to change their business model and tailor it to the new reality.”
Thurton is also the director of water technology company Gurumanzi, which provides ‘uninterrupted water supply solutions’ that address the water risk problem much like an uninterrupted power supply eases concerns over load-shedding and other power cuts. It provides a back-up water reserve that lasts up to 48 hours, that can be rented by households, schools, hospitals, and even residential or business estates.
“There are many examples of solutions that companies are working on and they are all disrupters, or game changers in their own right,” says Thurton, referring to one company that is in the process of developing a solution that treats borehole water to improve its quality.
Privatisation is controversial
Johann Boonzaaier is the chief executive manager of the Impala Water Users Association, which owns a dam in KwaZulu-Natal in the only area that has not been affected by the drought because Impala was able to sell water to the municipality. The dam is about the same size as Hartbeespoort Dam and, according to Boonzaaier, would cost around R600 million to build at today’s prices.
But he says privatising water is a controversial topic because access to water is a basic human right. He believes there is much to be done with regard to regulations in such a scenario. He points out how Eskom’s price increases have had a dire impact on the economy and that this would be magnified if the price of water were to rise to match its scarcity.
“The danger of that is that many peoples’ livelihood depends on that water,” says Boonzaaier, “and if you get industries that can pay the highest price, then what will happen to the majority of farmers who farm for subsistence and cannot afford to pay that price?”
The report also notes that making agricultural irrigation systems more efficient could save up to 40% of current water use.
“Another question is, what is the value of water? For us, the value of the water use is the total cost of maintaining the resource. But in the Western Cape, the price is four times what ours is. So how do you decide? You must remember that, you can get along without food for a while, but if you go two days without water you’re bound to perish.”
Thurton says the National Water Act and the Water Services Act are under review, and that there is a drive to have them amalgamated into one piece of legislation to address the changes that are necessary to improve water efficiency. One of the suggested changes would see residential estates being regarded as water service providers: they buy bulk water from the local authority and distribute it to their users.
South Africans use 235 litres of water per day, while an average world citizen uses 173 litres of water per day. If municipalities could reduce the per capita consumption to the world average, the demand-supply gap would be reduced by almost half – SA Water Efficiency Report 2016
“In effect, what that will do is it will privatise a certain portion of the value chain, and that will open up a whole new way of doing things… On the one hand it presents new business opportunities but on the other it is completely uncharted territory,” Thurton says.
Providing water is government’s responsibility
The report states that, while there are already acute water shortages in 6 500 rural communities, the problem will spread to the metropolitan areas. It states that, by 2030 there will be a 17% supply deficit, with the large cities being the worst affected.
“Cape Town, which falls within the Berg Water Management Area, will need to close a gap of about 28% to meet demand,” reads the report.
But Emily Craven from ActionAid South Africa says the intention of the report is not to start a dialogue on privatisation, but rather how to eradicate the inefficiencies within the country’s water eco-system. In some cases, this would lead to the companies that are directly responsible for those inefficiencies benefiting financially from perpetuating them.
Says Craven: “It would be a bit worrying if the first response from a report like this is a debate on water privatisation. Ultimately, it is government’s responsibility to ensure that people have access to clean, healthy water. That said, there is space for technology to be used to improve the system… We have seen it where mines have water purification plants that allow them to put water back into the system… What worries us is when the monetary value is put into the equation. Because mines are the biggest polluters of the water, essentially what you would have is municipalities buying their own water from the mines that polluted it in the first place”.