Fred Platt, CEO of JSE-listed infrastructure group Accentuate, has called on Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to urgently establish a war room to deal with the current water crisis in Cape Town and other parts of the country.
Accentuate is a joint venture partner of the global water experts Ion Exchange.
Platt says the water crisis is not limited to Cape Town, which is facing the probability of taps running dry some time in April. Port Elizabeth could follow 60 days later and many towns along the coast between the two cities are experiencing the same challenges.
He says South Africa should accept that we are experiencing a national crisis and should treat it the same way we would approach going to war. “It is now irrelevant who is to blame,” he says. “This is about survival.”
He calls on Ramaphosa to take the lead to get representatives of relevant government entities together on national, provincial and local government levels, including National Treasury, as well as banks and businesses with capability in the water industry and engineering profession.
The first decision to take would be not to allow a drop of water to be released from the system, Platt says.
He says South Africa’s water management is currently focused on rainwater, without proper strategies regarding ground water, reclaimed water and desalination.
If Cape Town stops releasing water from the system into the sea, it would have a large resource, which could be treated and utilised to avoid the looming crisis, Platt says. The city does not currently reclaim water.
Once this decision has been taken, nobody should leave the war room before they know exactly how to reach that objective. They should take stock of the capacity of all companies in the industry and have a project team allocate the capacity to the problem.
Platt says provisions for emergency procurement should be utilised, because this is a fight for survival.
Platt calls water an absolute enabler. Over centuries communities settled where there was water and the absence of water has brought civilisations to their knees.
In places like Dubai, Oman, Israel and Singapore water is the core driver of development and South Africa should take lessons from their successes, Platt says. “Cape Town is waiting for Day Zero, but Day Zero has in fact been happening systematically over the last ten to 15 years as the increasing water shortage has restricted development.”
Platt says to develop an appropriate water policy, over and above the crisis intervention, role players need to understand the status quo and risks related to rainwater, groundwater, reclamation and desalination. In relation to each there should be a proper understanding of the supply and demand for the different consumer groups, namely domestic, commercial and industrial users as well as public water.
He says the first political decision needed is to ensure that water infrastructure is maintained, to curb water losses.
The next decision needed would be to reuse all water. The capital cost for water reclamation is half of that for desalination and the operational cost 10%, says Platt.
He says South Africans should have a common understanding that water is not a consumable. Everybody who has water, is only the custodian of a common asset and bears the responsibility to hand it over in a way that can be further managed. “One can easily reclaim 60% of water used.”
The next step is to determine which technology is appropriate to top-up supply, Platt says, keeping in mind how water enables development.
He proposes a programme that rolls out one 150 mega-litre desalination plant per year in a decentralised way that ensures flexibility, rather than one 400 mega-litre plant. The pace of the rollout could be adjusted as needed.
South Africans currently see water as a cost, rather than an economic enabler, he says. We have only one, very high water standard. It is important to understand the economic value of water and develop lower standards that come at a lower cost. What we need is fit-for-purpose water, he says.
We should plan for the lifecycle of water. How can the water after extraction from the system be used and reused after that? Recycling and reuse should be mandatory in all planning approvals, Platt says.
Each user, be it a residential complex or shopping mall, should take responsibility for the recycling and reuse of its water. He says only 30% to 40% of water will be unsuitable for reuse.
Platt proposes a partnership between government and business with water treatment outsourced to business and government doing the distribution and reticulation.
Cape Town is South Africa’s face to the world. The reputational damage to the country if the city runs dry, is huge, Platt says.
Therefore it should be all hands on deck. Yesterday.