South Africa’s water crisis is real, not looming

By Khadija Sharife
Posted on Wednesday, 30 March 2011 17:55

South Africa is facing a looming water crisis unless pollution and inefficiency are tackled as a matter of urgency

While some problems are political, not all of them require high-tech solutions, Stephanie de Villiers, co-author of the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) report on water energy requirements for South Africa tells Khadija Sharife

Read more on South Africa’s problems with acid mine drainage in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report.

The Africa Report: Dr Anthony Turton, formerly of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, has spoken at length about South Africa’s looming water crisis. To what extent are management, conservation, effluent recycling and other aspects as much political as environmental and climate-related issues?

SA’s looming water crisis is real, in an increasing number of places across the country it is in fact not “looming” anymore, but a reality.

The origin of the crisis is multi-faceted, partly political (inequalities in access to water and service delivery inherited from pre-1994 apartheid policies, portrayal of the problem as the result of poor management by the post-1994 government by some, development of the mining industry as the cornerstone of the country’s economic development and the political clout of mining houses for more than a 100 years); and partly environmental (pollution, in the case of acid mine drainage is the result of over a 100 years of mining; eutrophication on the other hand results historically mostly from agricultural activities and more recently from poor maintenance of waterworks and the increasing number of unsewered human settlements along water courses in urban and rural areas); and partly climate (global warming if you’re talking future and longer-term, superimposed on naturally occurring decadal and shorter-term wet-dry cycles).

In my opinion it would be devastating for South Africa if the water crisis becomes primarily a political issue. It has become the latter to some extent already, because water is such a vital resource, the crisis provides ample opportunity for political types on all sides of the political spectrum to exploit the situation.

Acid mine drainage, for example, is the result of more than a 100 years of (very profitable to some) mining, not the result of the relevant government departments of today dragging their feet and downplaying the enormity of the problem. There are solutions to this and other water problems, but it will cost the government (i.e. all of us who live in this country), and I have no doubt that in the process a lot of engineering/consulting/research groups will make a very profitable and opportunistic existence out of it all.

South Africa has been pegged as a country with an outdated water and waste-water infrastructure – how would you classify the infrastructure and if aging, has the government acknowledged the problem at hand and budgeted for a solution?

You will have to ask an engineer for an educated opinion of whether our water and wastewater infrastructure are “outdated”. I think the more important question is whether is it well maintained or not.

In a country such as South Africa, with an abundance of remote and rural communities and the difficulties that come with servicing infrastructure in such localities, what is preferable: easy to operate, ‘outdated’ but functional equipment, or machinery so high-tech that you need somebody with a masters degree in engineering to keep it going?

Another important issue is the non-existence of water and wastewater infrastructure in many parts of South Africa (informal settlements in urban areas and remote rural locations). This gets back to my previous remark: when we establish infrastructure what do we invest in — state-of-the-art, impressively expensive infrastructure, manufactured abroad somewhere, or something more practical and suitable to the needs of this country?

There are exceptions of course, treatment of water contaminated by acid mine drainage to make it suitable for human consumption will require nothing less than state-of-the-art, but your typical municipal wastewater treatment plant is a different matter.

The establishment of infrastructure in Africa, as I am sure you know, is famously expensive compared to that in developed countries, and South Africa is not an exception. You have got to ask why and where the money is going, and the implications for development not only in South Africa but the rest of the continent. This is relevant to not only water infrastructure of cause, but energy, transport etc.

I think the government is aware of the problem, sometimes it gets acknowledged publically, and mostly it is at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. Wasteful expenditure and corruption at provincial and local government level will remain a huge obstacle to SA’s water problems, even if money is made available at national level.

The municipality where I live in, for example, has spent an enormous amount of money over the last 5 years upgrading our water and wastewater infrastructure, and I have to admit that even though I am a ratepayer, I do not know how much of this money came from our local rates and how much from money the municipality receives from national government.

What I do know is that it hasn’t bankrupted anybody and everyone now has enough clean water running out of taps in their houses. This is in a relatively dry area with a 200mm average annual rainfall. And maybe it wouldn’t be possible to replicate this everywhere in the country, but surely it must be possible to manage upgrading infrastructure this well in more places than seems to be the case.

How has the issue of acid mine drainage been addressed, if at all, and what solutions have been identified? Are these solutions economically and environmentally viable?

It seems that the issue of AMD is in the process of being considered worthy of more attention/action on the government’s side, which should be applauded, a small slow step but at least it’s in the right direction. The inter-minesterial commission appointed to look at the problem apparently favours neutralisation of AMD as the best solution to the problem. It certainly will be an economically viable solution, if logistics such as the reservoirs needed for the neutralisation to be carried out in can be sorted out, which seems unlikely at the moment.

The proposals by corporations such as WUC to step in with their proposed solutions have apparently been shot down, because they wanted to sell the cleaned water back to Rand Water, making a profit in the process. I’m not sure why mining house are allowed to pollute while making a profit, and corporations who want to clean up are apparently expected to do so without the benefit of making a profit.

What I find even more confusing is why the government is not using this as an opportunity to set up a state-owned-enterprise that actually will have the potential to make some money that can be ploughed back into state coffers. This is one aspect of the country’s water crisis that appears to be totally bogged down by politics.

Which strategic industries consume the most water and is water consumption efficient? Which industries should focus on curbing pollution and inefficiencies and how?

Irrigation for agricultural purposes cosumes the most by far (see AEON Report 2) 7,920m cubic metres per year which is about 10 times what the mining sector and other industries use. Urban domestic use is strictly speaking not an industry, but it is the next largest consumer of water in the country (2,897m cubic metres per year).

Considering the size of both of these compared to the other water users, both have to seriously look at curbing inefficiencies. I know the agri sector is seriously looking at it. Urban use (mostly domestic) – leaking water pipes in water distribution systems is considered a huge problem and in urgent need of attention country-wide.

And then recycling – we should not wait until there is no more water left before recycling is taken seriously, as is currently the case in Beaufort-West and many small towns along the south coast. Even though the mining (and power) sector uses relatively less water, the amount of water that gets polluted by these industries far exceeds the amount used by these industries.

Is the necessary budget available on the part of mining houses? What of the infrastructure, and skilled people required – can they be sourced locally?

Addressing acid mine drainage will be expensive, but as long as most of the mining houses are still raking in billions of rands in profits every year, how can anybody argue that “we” cannot afford to fix the problem? The argument that the mining houses of today should not be held responsible for the problems created by their predecessors over a long period of time holds water with me only up to a point.

We need more skilled people, and more of the home-grown type, rather than expensively imported consultants/engineers and academics. There is no shortage of young people interested in pursuing water studies as a career in this country, and it’s unfortunate that South Africa’s universities remain unattractive environments for so many bright young prospective postgraduate students.

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