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Dhesigen Naidoo 
The Second National Water Resources Strategy – navigating a fork in the road

The South African water community is once again seized with a critical national conversation. The draft 2nd national water resources strategy (NWRS-2) has been gazetted for public comment. The discussions have been vibrant, informative and passionate in many forums, including parliament, where the parliamentary portfolio committee for water and the environment hosted four days of public hearings over the last two weeks of October. Why is the conversation so important? Why have the levels of engagement already been so high? After all this isn’t a law or a new policy – it’s just a five-year strategy demanded as compliance requirement of the National Water Act after all – or is it?

In several ways for many this is, sixteen years later, the follow-up to the national dialogue led by former Water Affairs Minister, Kader Asmal, which led to the promulgation of the National Water Act in 1998. The review that preceded the development of NWRS-2 is also timely. After eighteen years in this fledgling democracy characterised by continuous positive economic growth, concomitant population growth, tremendous extension of basic services to the previously marginalised majority, all of which has been very water intensive – we have stretched our resources. Of course, much of this has been done in a very carbon-intensive paradigm. Add to this mix the fact that some 200 years of poor mining and other industrial practices have finally come home to roost in the most dramatic way with the poisoning our vital aquifers through acid mine drainage and related factors and the picture that emerges points in one direction. The burden on our water ecosystems has reached Gaia’s limits and the Earth Mother is expressing her displeasure.

We are at a fork in the road and the choices we make now will not only affect the next five years until NWRS-3, but the next 50 years as the knock-on effects will be profound. During the discourse thus far the notion of a South Africa in water crisis has been raised in many quarters and was in fact the lead question in a Department of Water Affairs sponsored Mail and Guardian Critical Thinkers Forum in October. Several countries that have lower natural water reserves and lower precipitation patterns when compared with us are not spoken about in the same terms – why? These countries and regions have been able to ensure their water security when many with much higher rainfall figures and much better storage options have not based on four factors.

Firstly the water management in these more successful areas are informed by high levels of science, technology and innovation. The decision-making is highly informed and water is a critical upfront consideration in any development plan. The second is good, well maintained infrastructure. The third is the development and availability of large pools of skilled talent to plan, develop, operate and maintain the water management system at all levels. The fourth and in many cases differentiating factor in most systems is water use behaviours across the spectrum from large industry and agriculture to the individual at household level. Like electricity usage individual behaviour changes have an accumulative and almost immediate impact on the system both in positive and negative directions. What is different about water from electricity are the reuse possibilities. That single litre of water can be used several times with the proper system design.

The Water Research Commission (WRC) and the South African water research community has over the past forty years developed a knowledge repository that ensures that the NWRS-2 and its successors have a natural (Research and Development) R&D partner. The WRC believes strongly that a NWRS-2 that is developed further and implemented with strong scientific support, good social dynamics analysis and innovative technological and systems solutions is the pathway to ensure a wetter South Africa with much more comfortable levels of water security than the current trajectories extrapolate. This will also create the virtuous cycle of R&D informing and ensuring good water management decisions and practice which in turn organises for the further development of water research and the growth of the water research community through higher R&D investment and partnership in South Africa. The attainment of the goals that matter – equity of access and water as an enabler of growth and sustainable development depends on us achieving this with a strong partnership between science and the economy.

Contact: WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo, email - dhesn@wrc.org.za.

WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo
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