Plumbing solutions for a water crisis

By: Mike Muller

Are all these stop-gap solutions to South Africa’s current state of water insecurity a help or a hindrance?

Heat waves and drought have certainly helped to keep water in the news. It reminds me of a thriving business I saw in Luanda, Angola a few years ago, where faced with similar problems, people were buying plastic bottles of water, which kids were filling from a leaking valve box in the street.

For those of us in the water game, drought and water shortages are always good for business. Whether you are selling water in plastic bottles or selling plastic bottles and tanks to put it in, stock has been flying off the shelves. The market for comments and advice is also booming with requests for information and comment from journalists and for endorsements for clever new products and services.

As always, many business people are taking advantage of the crisis to tell everyone about their solutions, which are sometimes a little unnerving if not simply absurd.

Leading the field on the absurd side must surely be the machine that makes water from the air. It is simply a cooler designed to condense and collect moisture in the atmosphere. It works just like the average air conditioner. As you know, if you are really short of water in a hot, rich country, you just need to put bottles out to catch the inevitable irritating drips that fall from the machines above. But it is not a serious source of water, even if you have free electricity.

Although motivated by the best of intentions, almost as absurd an effort was ‘Operation Hydrate’. The idea that you can meet the water needs of whole communities by collecting bottles of water at a central point and trucking them hundreds of kilometres to their destination shows an ignorance of both water and economics.

There are very few places in the country where you cannot find a supply of water close by, enough at least to fill a couple of tanker loads. In most small communities, the first thing to do when there is a water shortage is to fix the local boreholes – and then to persuade people not to over-pump them.

Read the full feature in Plumbing Africa March 2016, page 30.

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