Are we heading for a water crisis?

We are all familiar with the consequences of electricity outages – but should we be preparing for a water crisis? By its very nature water is somewhat different from electricity. Water is easier to store but harder to distribute – rendering it a more localised business. Crises will arise, and have, but generally it will be in pockets.

SA is a dry country and it relies on some large water transfer schemes – the biggest being the Lesotho Highlands scheme which provides water to the Vaal system. And, given our lack of water in the interior, wastewater disposal is rendered that much more difficult. So, when we think of a water crisis, we should be thinking as much of a sanitation crisis, as poor sanitation networks spill back into the river systems, polluting the water needed for potable purposes downstream.

In RSA the water resource is owned by the state – and water usage rights are allocated by the state. Usage is difficult to manage and measure. The big challenges with regard to water supply and demand balances are being addressed on a water catchment area basis. The challenges in the Vaal River System are illustrative. The area suffers from excess discharge of effluent and salts, eutrophication, acid mine water drainage, and unlawful irrigation extraction. Mitigation will come from efforts in water conservation and water demand management, sewage re-use, augmentation of the Lesotho Highlands project, and purification and re-use of mine effluent. Here, as in the other catchment areas, water crisis problems will occur if these initiates are not proactively managed.

But the real challenge in South Africa is the delivery of water at local government level. We all know that this sphere of government has seen a loss of capacity and skills which limits the ability to do on the job training and to undertake what should be routine maintenance operations. The housing model, whereby all new developments are provided with full water borne facilities is not helpful as many municipalities cannot afford the cross subsidy required when residents cannot afford to pay, or will not pay, for the services provided. The smaller municipalities are heavily dependent on the equitable share transfers from National Treasury. These transfers earmarked for service delivery, are often appropriated by the municipalities for other purposes. The combination of these factors has caused local water and sanitation crises in places such as Mthatha and this is likely to repeat itself elsewhere in time to come.

Can the private sector come to the rescue? Water provision at local level is something of a monopoly business so it is difficult to introduce competition into the market. However, there are numerous examples around the world where the private sector is responsible for water provision – generally through competition for the market. However, this is no panacea. The private sector generally operates more efficiently and is a credible borrower where it is able to discount a revenue stream. Problems have arisen when there is no political support for the private sector and the government reneges on tariff and revenue collection agreements.

In South Africa there is limited involvement by the private sector. After the Nelspruit and Dolphin Coast concessions were granted in the late 1990’s there has been very little activity. Problems at local government level may precipitate future opportunities for operations and maintenance type contracts at local and district level. Further opportunities may arise for PPPs should a decision be taken to go ahead with large-scale waste water reuse plants. However, the government – influenced as it is by the SACP and Cosatu – is not favourably disposed to deeper involvement by the private sector.

In conclusion, it is too soon to panic about a water crisis – unless you live in Mthatha. But further failures of this type are inevitable. On a bigger scale a water crisis is preventable, but it will require that both macro supply and demand are actively managed, and that there is good operations management at local level

But do we have the necessary seriousness and capacity to get this right?

FMF Feature Article / 18 August 2009

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