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Dhesigen Naidoo 
National Water and Sanitation Summit: why it is important for South Africa?

Water is the lifeblood of both the economy as well as our personal well-being. This axiom is revisited and re-confirmed every day in our country and around the world. We have the three dimensional challenge of servicing an increasing and developing population; meeting the needs of a water-intensive economic growth pathway; and dealing with the vagaries of the water challenges associated with climate change in an already water scarce South Africa. In addition, like many developing countries and now even some OECD countries; we have a backlog on both safe sanitation, and to a slightly lesser degree, safe water access.

The Minister of Water and Sanitation, Honourable Nomvula Mokonyane in her budget speech to parliament on July 15, talked about the mandate of this fifth democratic administration being “to move South Africa forward through radical socio-economic transformation.” In this spirit she added that “As we strive to consolidate our successes and celebrate the good story in the water sector we shall, with immediate effect use this budget to deal with 10% of existing services that are dysfunctional and a further 26% where the provision of water is not reliable.” She went on to list a series of “game-changers” to turn South Africa’s water and sanitation fortunes around and concluded that “the participation of our people in the water sector is key.” In the first week of August 2014, we will convene a two day Summit where all stakeholders in the water family will come together and define our working relationship.”

This great Water Indaba on 1 and 2 August will, for the first time, offer an opportunity for a deep multi-stakeholder engagement to very critically examine both our water and sanitation challenges as well as our responses to them in the last 20 years, with no holds barred. We are also seeking to use the diversity of minds we will have in the room to develop and converge on the innovative solutions that we will need in order to successfully solve these problems. This is the very crux of the Summit investment. The convergence to both a shared vision for the future of water and sanitation in South Africa, as well as multi-stakeholder ownership of the journey to realize that vision.

The South African water and sanitation effort in these last twenty years has been primarily government driven. There have been bouquets of successes which have included a globally acclaimed legislative framework that was indeed worthy of the Stockholm Water Prize in 2000. We have also achieved an increase of primary or basic water access to 40% of the population that never had it before 1994. This has yet to be matched anywhere else in the world. Our water storage and inter-basin transfer schemes continue to be applauded as world leading. At the same time we have received brickbats for not ensuring human dignity through universal access to safe water and sanitation services. We are also faced with mounting water quality challenges both on the back of current water behaviors and infrastructure integrity challenges, as well as historic poor practices that have come home to roost like acid mine drainage. 

Government has had this responsibility of the broader water programme, driven in large part by a rights-based constitution with government having the final responsibility on the realization of those rights. There are important issues to be drawn from this. The first is that, while there has been a budgetary convenience for the other parties with government picking up the tab, there is a price to pay. One direct consequence is that ironically this country, which boasts many world firsts in the water domain, does not have a significant water industry outside the public space. Further the global presence of the South African Water Industry is very limited. In fact, South Africa is increasingly becoming attractive as a market for international water companies - the very same water companies that could soon become the dominant players in our neighbourhood in the absence of significant competition from South African counterparts. So an important part of the Summit discussions will have to look at the role of the private sector in both realizing a water secure South Africa, as well as the development of a significant South African water industry in both the public and private sectors. 

The second important issue associated with government currently looked at as having the sole service delivery responsibility is of course the limited partnership model. While the public participation and consultation processes have been very robust, it did not manage to foster the desired co-ownership model. This is a combination of co-ownership of the asset as well as co-responsibility in its sustainability including security, operations and maintenance. So another important outcome for the Summit is the design of the co-responsibility model to attain a water successful future for South Africa.

A third important issue is the limited non-government investment in research, development and innovation. The South African Water Research Commission (WRC) has a cache of world leading research from which knowledge has been used to develop marketable products for the real economy, but in other parts of the world where the water innovation and development industry is much more vibrant. Not only is this a net loss of intellectual capital, but also an important missed opportunity not only to better service South Africa’s needs, but also to become an important supplier of water and sanitation solutions globally.

The Minister of Science and Technology, in her budget speech, reiterated South Africa’s desire to both increase the country’s R&D enterprise on the back of a drive to achieve a 1.5% GDP investment as well as organize for the country to increasingly become a preferred destination for science and technology in the world. Water has very attractive offerings in this regard. We have the opportunity to become a world leader in water climate change adaptation solutions and technologies for example. Another opportunity is to up our game in the acid mine drainage arena and become a leading producer of acid mine water, and, salinity and brines solutions. The latter, being increasingly acknowledged as the next wave of challenges for global water as all of our resources, become increasingly saline from our various industrial and agricultural processes. But perhaps our best opportunities lie in the realm of assisting the world’s poor and marginalized. The first would be to develop low cost safe water supply options. This would include point of use and more decentralized water treatment solutions, alternative supply like rain and fog water harvesting. The second dimension of this is no or low water, safe sanitation solutions particularly for peri-urban and rural environments which house the vast majority of the world’s poor.

The Summit’s objectives are ambitious. The challenges tabled above are both complex and daunting. They will require a huge multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary effort to engage them successfully. The rewards for that effort are clearly high and very desirable. A water successful future for South Africa is achievable. The extent and timeframe to attain that future depends on our level of investment – financially, intellectually, politically and indeed emotionally. It begins at the Summit on 1 August.

Dhesigen Naidoo is the CEO of the Water Research Commission and part of the organising team for the Water and Sanitation Summit.


Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane
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