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YONELA DIKO: Do we have enough water for the President’s development plans?

opinion

South Africa’s development is rarely ever planned with water availability in mind. This is a mistake because water is as much an economic input in development as it is an ecological imperative.

The reality of South Africa with regards to water is that of a country of low rainfall in a warming world. This makes water in South Africa a scarce resource. Despite this reality, we have continued to exclude water in developmental planning and are generally water complacent.

As the country develops, the population grows and droughts endure, the nagging question, every day, is whether we have enough water for all our development plans, the current ones as announced by the President as well as all future development. Are we water secure? What can we do to secure a wetter future?

The Mooikloof project is one of the projects considered in the Strategic Infrastructure Development Initiative and showcased during the investors pitching session held in May 2020. Cabinet has since approved some 24 human settlements projects as part of this strategic infrastructure programme.

We know the economic dividends of such projects, with human settlements projects contributing some 8% of jobs in the construction space. There is also the clear value chain of procurement of all inputs into the construction - from windowpanes, to doors, to cement - which we hope will be purchased from local suppliers, predominantly black and predominantly female.

All these projects are water intensive and depending on where they are situated, they put pressure on water supplies in the respective regions of the country which have an uneven distribution of water supplies. What should be our water response to development? There is a role for everyone: all public and private institutions, governance structures, NGOs, farmers, businesses and individual members of the communities.

A construction site of some 7,466 m2 can easily use over 6 million litres of water constructing a 40-month project. That is almost half the water an entire town like Butterworth uses in a day. With a plan to make South Africa a construction site, we cannot afford to not put water as one of the key ingredients that must be costed and planned for.

WATER SUPPLY

In an effort to make all South Africans water conscious, it's important for the Department of Water and Sanitation to keep all South Africans water informed. We must be informed of what our sources of water supplies are, how much water we are currently using for the development we do have and what the future consumption prospects are.

The primary input to our water in South Africa, as with any other country, is rainwater. Unlike other country's however, South Africa's rainfall is at 490mm per year, which is half the world average.

The water is then stored in various dams as surface water and some become underground water. Surface storage systems comprise of about 5,000 registered dams (3,832 of these are small dams serving farms and municipalities) and imported water from Lesotho

Rainfall also fills up various catchments, rivers, wetlands and aquifers. These water source areas occupy 8% of our land and generate 50% of our river flows. Naturally, it is our moral obligation, particularly the state, to ensure that these water sources are preserved and protected. They should be protected from alien vegetation and exploitation. We need to conserve, restore, maintain, monitor and carefully manage our water sources. Currently, we are protecting only 16% of South Africa’s water source areas (WSAs).

According to the Water Research Council, the total volume of available renewable groundwater is estimated to be between 10,500 million m3/annum (7,500 million m3/annum under drought conditions). The current use is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 million m3/annum.

Surface water (reliable local yield) is 13,911 million m3/annum. Surface water is largely allocated, leaving the greatest potential for more water on the groundwater supplies.

This full allocation of surface water means the current water we have, we must preserve and one of the key challenges is evaporation of surface water. Here, ideas include using managed aquifer recharges to be evaporation proof and as a means of water storage and banking.

Given the amount of water we have in our reserves and the annual rainfall, we have to then think of the different sectors and sections of society and their water needs. From agriculture to industry, construction to municipalities, communities to households. All these sections are growing, expanding, along with their demands.

WATER DISTRIBUTION

Ove the last 26 years, the country has done well in providing water to previously disadvantaged households. Many South Africans, however, remain without regular access to fresh clean water, particularly at a village level.

The process of building infrastructure and reticulation over the years to expand water access to all previously disadvantaged South Africans has been a work of masterclass engineering for our country, ensuring that our dams are able to transfer water to areas of need.

This expansion of access to water, both to cover the previously disadvantage and high levels of development, have put South Africa's water supply areas under pressure and since the early 2000s, areas like the Olifants, Inkomati, Thukela, Mvoti and Gouritz water management areas were already under pressure.

Today, the country’s demand is expected to increase by 32% (to 17 700 million m3) by 2030 thanks to projected development demands and population growth. This would mean even our currently underutilised groundwater will be under pressure by 2030.

Unfortunately, water stress in South Africa has implications for water pressure in our neighbours, with whom we share river flows.

A total of 60% of the river basins in South Africa flow to or from another country. The headwaters of the Orange-Senqu are in Lesotho, and tributaries flowing into the Pongola come from Swaziland. The Limpopo and the Inkomati rivers flow into Mozambique.

If we are to develop at the rate we envisage, the current groundwater consumption of water, which is at only 15%, has to be accelerated otherwise the competition for surface water among sectors will intensify and result in catastrophe.

In the end, like National Treasury would do in all programme proposals with regards to funding, we must now ask for all proposed developments, where is the water going to come from?

Yonela Diko is the spokesperson for the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. He writes in his personal capacity.

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