YONELA DIKO: COVID-19 & the water sector: Crisis often inspires reform

South Africa's water sector, like all sectors in the country, is full of contradictions. There are areas that have regular water supply with high water rainfalls and extensive irrigation projects, overflowing rivers and dams. Then there are areas which are dry, with a desert feel, with poor water quality. Some areas have great forestation and some areas are barren.

Then there is the practical but historic problem that South Africa’s development was driven not by water availability but by mineral resources, and its biggest cities and towns were built around these mineral resources, and not around water availability or river flows like other countries. This means areas like Gauteng or Rustenburg were not built with water availability in mind, but rather with gold and diamond mining in mind.

Since the democratisation of the country there has been greater concentration of people in these developed areas, resulting in high water demands, particularly for food production. This results in over extraction. More resources have had to be invested to ensure these areas are water secure.

Under normal circumstances a community will live within a particular radius on a riverbank which sufficiently supplies that community with water. The problem starts when the community develops, along with its agricultural capacity, its industrial prowess, and the increase in water demands. This means that the river that was supplying water for such a community becomes incapable of sustaining the new and rising demand.

If these demands are happening in all communities, then contestation for limited water resources emerges and water pressure is inevitable. What you will then have is over extraction in rivers and negative impact on wetland sites, which requires the Department of Water and Sanitation to engage both industrial and agricultural sectors on how we can meet their water demands without over extraction and destroying wetlands, biodiversity and the ecosystem.

One of the biggest challenges in South Africa for most communities is that we have a much lower conversion rate of water from rainfall into water that ends up in rivers and into your taps at home. This is said to be as low as 15%. This means much of the significant rain that Cape Town has enjoyed over the last few days will not end up in our river flows and back into the system.

What is needed then is the development of engineering means to build storage capacity for water, and to find ways for inter-basin transfers of water from one catchment to the next, in order to meet rising demand.

This means that part of the work the Department of Water and Sanitation has been doing is to augment what we get from rivers and catchments and to preserve our rainfall water through engineering infrastructure which we can use to store water and transfer it to various areas in our country according to the need.

Despite these efforts, our surface water and our stored water have not been enough to satisfy the country's demand. We have had to look into underground water and keep as much of it in storage. With improving technology, we are not only able to store water in our infrastructure, but are able to keep track of the level of water in both our catchments and in our stored facilities.

More critically, this poses important questions that the department must continue to wrestle with. How do we ensure that not everyone can just jump into a water catchment and extract water? How are water rights allocated? And how do we ensure that rural communities are water secure?

Even though we may develop storage capacity and find ways for inter-basin transfers, increasing demand for water may well exceed both the natural catchments and the stored water. This then requires a much more complex water management programme.

South Africa is currently listed in the top 40 driest country in the world. While the global rainfall average is 870 mm per year, South Africa's rainfall is just over half that, averaging 509 mm according to the South Africa Weather Service. As long as our rivers are flowing and water comes out when we turn our taps, we are generally complacent and unbothered, at least until an imminent drought comes along, which is usually too late to change our relationship with water and how we treat it. Most importantly, it is when our wells are running dry that we make desperate attempts to be knowledgeable about the state of our water resources and how we can help to sustain it.

This happened in 2018 when the City of Cape Town was facing its worst water crisis and drought in a generation. Residents were suddenly interested in where the City of Cape Town actually got its water, which dams were feeding which parts of the population, how much was the consumption split between agriculture, industry and households, what was the legislated water allocation of various interests and who had more rights to water than others. It is now happening again as the key mitigating factor to the COVID-19 pandemic is reliable and abundant water supply to all South Africans.

It has always been important, at all times, to know the state of water in the regions where we live and in our country and the work that government and many stakeholder institutions are doing to expand and protect our water resources, as well as the role we can all play in order to preserve every drop.

Although South Africa is not in the top 17 countries considered the driest countries in the world, which is led by Qatar and most Middle Eastern countries and a few in North Africa, a third of South Africa's population is still not water secure. We have seen recurring droughts and climate change effects and these will only become more frequent. Contrast this with a rising demand for water for our flattening world, urbanisation, concentrated development and living, increasing food production, and our relationship with water cannot just be a hollow one between rain and our cups.

Climate change and a warming world pose added significant challenges to countries like South Africa that already do not have an abundance of rain fall. Experts have said, “A two-degree increase in global temperatures means a four-degree increase for South Africa”. So where do we find our water resources and how may we preserve those sources and ensure we expand the reach of every drop while making sure it lasts longer?

Our water supplies come from catchments, rivers, wetlands and aquifers. Our primary task as the Department of Water and Sanitation is to ensure our water sources are preserved and their ecological infrastructure is kept in a pristine condition and protected from alien vegetation. This usually begins with trying to ensure that all the natural catchments are preserved and restored. Secondly, this means there must be a partnership with all water users to bring limits to water extraction.

The department must therefore continue its efforts to integrate its approach to water management and use in order to ensure that water rights and allocation are distributed fairly. This is important because water rights in South Africa still follow the apartheid spatial distribution. Then we need to promote dam safety and safety of other catchments, reduce water pollution, encourage efficient water use and prepare for the future demand for water.

Equally important is the question of sanitation and its impact on downstream water abstraction if it’s not handled properly. So it’s not enough for people to be able to take water from rivers, there must also be rules on where the waste discharge goes so that it does not go back to the very same river that is the source of fresh water.

As one expert said, “Understanding water rights and water allocation is therefore key to understanding the solutions to global water stress”.

Yonela Diko is the head of communications for the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. Follow him on Twitter @yonela_diko