From economic and water poverty to prosperity

WATER pours down an irrigation channel from a groundwater pump and well next to a field of rice growing on farmland in the Bhagpat district of Uttar Pradesh, India. The writer says we need to better manage South Africa’s natural resources. I Prashanth Vishwanathan Bloomberg from economic and water poverty to prosperity There is a need to radically change how we supply and use water in South Africa WE NEED to unlock more water resources and drive efficiency in our existing supplies to stimulate the economy and job growth. As our climate is changing and the main input into our water resources, rainfall, becomes more variable in time and space, we need to adjust how we manage and value our water resources. Water is an important cog in our economy. The challenges we face are not only on the supply side, but also on the demand side. The custodians of our resources are blamed for our water woes through poor planning and operation and maintenance. Users are blamed for excessive water use. South Africa’s per capita water use is of the highest in the world. The world average is 170 litres a day compared to our average of 235 litres a day and in some metropolitan areas can reach 600 litres a day, while we have rural communities that still do not have adequate access to water below 50 litres a day. There is a need to radically change how we supply and use water in this country. As our water demands grow, we should do things differently while tackling our challenges head on. Access to water is a key requirement to grow the economy at all levels. Three barriers to economic growth are recognised by economist’s improper infrastructural investment, skills and education development and public service delivery. The traditional and established means of water supply have worked well when only a small population was served. It is increasingly more difficult to serve scattered communities owing to challenges in settlement densities and topography, among others. SHAFICK ADAMS the way we manage our water resources also needs radical transformation. Post 1994, we have achieved a great deal in getting people connected to water infrastructure. However, the question remains: are these connections supplied with water all the time? Did we only add how many water supply points we have installed? We have reported, for the Millennium Development Goals, 88.3% safe water access. Did we also subtract the failed or unsustainable systems? Basic domestic water supply remains a challenge. Let us consider what are called the “priority district municipalities that are dysfunctional” these municipalities sit on top of our higher exploitable groundwater resources areas. Yet the resource is ignored in the main or poorly managed. Because we are obsessed with building dams, groundwater can be considered the Cinderella resource. What are some of the root causes? First, groundwater is an invisible resource to the layperson. It is difficult to determine its volumes as opposed to a dam. This leads to a perception problem about its assurance of yield it needs to be developed and managed by skilled personnel. Second, it has a lower capital expenditure cost compared to dams but a higher long-term operational cost. It seems that our financial systems cannot deal with this phenomenon and most favoured projects are those with higher capital expenditure over a shorter period. In addition, the financial burden is on the municipality for local water schemes and they tend to prefer receiving piped water from another Water Services Provider to externalise planning and logistics. Third, the distribution infrastructure and abstraction systems need to be operated, maintained and ma aged in addition to how the aquifers respond to the abstraction this is no easy task. Last, the institutional biases to dams and now desalination plants. At the local municipality level where groundwater is a conjunctive or sole source, supply management is poor or absent. A water research commission study recently surveyed 24 municipalities that use groundwater as a domestic supply source. It found that 71% of these municipalities do not have a groundwater management plan and 17% do not know if they have a plan. Only 13% of the municipalities do have plans. This is also reflected in the lack of specialised groundwater personnel in the employ of the municipalities 79% do not have the required skill to manage their groundwater supply schemes. This is clearly a recipe for disaster and points to poor governance provisions. When a groundwater scheme fails, the tendency is to blame the resource as unreliable while the real reason is poor management and institutional arrangements. It’s myth that groundwater is always cheap to manage, available in exploitable quantities all over the place, always potable and free. Groundwater is but one example of how we do not use available resources to meet our increasing demands. By including this under used resource in our water supply mix with other water sources like direct wastewater reuse, rain and storm water harvesting we can improve our water security. At the same time, we need to over haul our deteriorating water infrastructure. The Water Research Commission estimated that our non-revenue water loss amounts to around R7 billion and a large part is because of leaking infra structure. The war on leaks programme and artisan training programmes are a step in the right direction. On the demand side, we need to radically change our approaches to water use across all sectors. We need to upscale sanitation technologies that use no or significantly less water to flush our toilets. The water research commission has prototype toilets that flush with less than one litre of water. The way we design our buildings and cities needs to radically change to become water and energy efficient. Imagine the manufacturing opportunities if we need to retro fit cities and create new industries that supply water wise technologies. South Africa’s water economy can reduce the high levels of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. Dr Adams is executive manager at the Water Research Commission.

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