Real reasons behind South Africa’s water crisis

By Belynda Petrie.

It’s a tough reality that South Africa is in the grips of the harshest drought to have hit the country in decades. It is also true that this severely limits South Africa’s economic growth and that the looming water crisis threatens to destabilize the economy further.

The government has resisted declaring the drought a national disaster — despite calls to do so — which means not releasing funds set aside to reduce its effects. While the argument put forward is that not all nine provinces are affected, the government is choosing to spend the departmental funds, particularly those in water and sanitation, elsewhere.

The underlying motive for this is politically charged. Declaring a national disaster sets in motion actions geared towards releasing reserves from the national emergency fund, according to the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement of October 2015. The national emergency fund is, however, now allegedly depleted as a result of the 10.1% increase in public servants’ salary packages in the 2015/16 financial year.

A typical definition of a drought is one of a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, resulting in a water shortage. At face value this definition is apt and much of southern Africa is facing similar conditions. Kariba Dam, shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe, is operating at 12% dam levels, as well as up to 16 hours per day load-shedding as a result of the woefully inadequate hydropower production. Furthermore, critical dam infrastructure is threatening to collapse. Certainly, rainfall across the sub region is at abnormally low levels and there is no doubt that less than 12% dam levels constitutes a water shortage that could even be categorized as severe.

But if we look at the southern African situation more carefully, particularly its cause and effects, we see that the situation is not simply about low rainfall. Although we could not have improved the quantity and the predictability of rainfall, we could have minimized its impact. Poor data and inadequate long-term investments lie behind the institutional failure at the heart of the problem.

Firstly, we could have predicted and planned for the drought. Southern Africa entered an anticipated El Niño cycle: a warming of the surface water of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, occurring every four to twelve years and causing unusual global weather patterns, typically characterised in southern Africa by lower than usual rainfall and dry spells. While climate change worsens El Niño conditions, the relationship between climate change and long-standing patterns of weather variability is much better understood today. Science now points clearly to the risks of age-old extreme events increasing in intensity, more prolonged periods of extremes and greater change.

One example of intensity and change is that the rains (where they have fallen) have come at the wrong time, according to South Africa’s agricultural organisations. This reality heightens the need for high-resolution data (rainfall is particularly location sensitive) and monitoring of patterns of change. In South Africa, a lack of critical historical data compounded our inability to forewarn.

According to the Water Research Commission, or WRC, South Africa has seen a sharp reduction in rainfall gauging stations, with fewer instruments today than in 1920. The current drought is thus largely undetectable by most of the instruments to tell us the extent and the depth of the problem. This compromises the ability of local authorities to forewarn farmers and consumers (meaning, the entire population of the country) of how much rain to expect and when. This is a stark example of the catastrophic failure of a strategic national resource. Simply stated, we need properly equipped gauging stations to show us how bad the situation really is.

The consequence was poor preparedness. The institutions in the water-food supply chain were not in a position to forewarn farmers or consumers. An early warning could have led to different decisions being made about when to plant, how to water, what to stock pile and how to finance the importing of the staple food the country desperately needs.

Early warning could also have informed a drought reduction and response plan. If such a plan had been developed in advance by water users and local authorities, it would have enabled more timely interventions from local authorities responsible for anticipating and planning for extreme events and hazards. As it is, hundreds of subsistence farmers in the North West Province and the Free State have been forced to sell off their livestock. At the last count, more than 40 000 head of cattle had perished or been culled in KwaZulu-Natal alone, according to AgriSA.

The implications for food costs are serious: food price inflation is set to rise by 11% by the end of 2016, which is the estimated time for stocks to have run out – particularly for meat and dairy. The extent of the damage is estimated at more than R400-million since the crisis emerged. It is predicted that these effects will be felt until at least 2019 – in the midst of a growing unemployment and political crisis.

Second, South Africa’s vulnerability — or the degree to which it is unable to cope with the adverse effects of climate change, variability and an extreme event — is characterised by a failure of our institutions. This is a long-term topic and systemic problem that is reflective of cumulative political decisions that fail to factor in the true political and economic value of water. South Africa’s ongoing drought experience consistently reveals the extent to which our water storage systems are poorly maintained and, in many cases, also under invested.

Although South Africa comes from a much higher base than its neighbours in terms of water infrastructure capacity (the country has many more dams for example), investments have lagged behind rates of increasing water demand. Even worse is that the capacity that does exist has been poorly maintained, and in some instances, also destroyed through lack of accountability, vandalism and theft.

An important example lies in wastewater treatment plants around the country. Many have run into disrepair due to long term under investment, and as a consequence, are discharging close on four billion litres of untreated or partially treated sewage into the country’s dams and rivers daily — driving the eutrophication of most major dams.

This situation directly contradicts need. As water scarcity increases, so should investments in infrastructure maintenance and protection. Evidence for this exists in political statements and in economic statistics.

The media liaison for the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sputnik Ratau, said that drought-stricken areas with little to no water resource storage facilities have been the worst affected by water shortages. In many of the drought-stricken areas, such as the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the southern parts of Mpumalanga, and selected areas of Limpopo, the North West Province and Northern Cape, about 50% of local water storage is problematic and in some instances, critical.

As of 1 November 2015, the drought had already affected 173 of the 1 628 water supply schemes across the country, serving about 2.7 million households or 18% of the national population. By 20 November 2015, five of the nine provinces had been declared drought disaster areas for agriculture.

As Winston Churchill said, “One should never waste a good crisis.” The country is in a water shortage and food security crisis and the outlook is bleak (despite ongoing resistance to declaring the drought a national disaster). Evidence to support the argument that water shortages are not simply the result of the drought but rather stem from inadequate strategic planning and a shortage of skills, is mounting and well-argued by water experts around the nation.

But the drought has made that which was invisible visible, establishing an opportunity to overcome the obstacles to long-term water security solutions. Institutional failure must be reversed and quickly. Multiple co-benefits such as increased investments and improved socio‑economic conditions and jobs can also be realised.

For many investors and users, water means money. Water insecurity comes at a substantial cost across the supply chain of water, ending up in the pocket of the end user and the consumer. For agricultural funds, water is the primary asset for many of their investments, which typically involve significant capital outlays. Thus, crisis conversion options are also available throughout the supply chain.

These range from effective drought management plans that remove the ‘crisis’ from drought response efforts to private sector investments in water efficient water technologies, such as spray installations and drip irrigation. It also includes public (and private) investments in naturally functioning ecosystems (ecological or ‘soft’ infrastructure) that provide critical services, such as clean water to communities. In this way, the crisis can be converted into an opportunity for investors; creating essential co-benefits for municipalities, communities, enterprises and jobs.

Policy and co-operation are key to unlocking the opportunities. All of South Africa – not only the drought-affected regions – will benefit from improved water provisioning underpinned by policy that facilitates ease of investment and efficient consumption. In addition to meeting their mandate for delivering safe and secure water, a high priority for all local government institutions must be policy incentives that encourage innovative technologies and practices, as these will result in enhanced socio-economic development.

The rationale for investors to adopt new policy measures is embedded in the argument that focused and steady interventions are likely to be significantly more cost effective than reactive, unplanned measures coupled with heightened losses resulting from a sustained drought.

Policy that converts the crisis into investments that yield direct returns and co-benefits for society will have a wide-reaching and positive effect for the country – both politically and economically.

Belynda Petrie is the CEO and co-founder of sustainable development firm, OneWorld Sustainable Investments.


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