At the heart of South Africa’s water woes lies our continued inability to utilize the water we already have innovatively, effectively, efficiently and with the right levels of efficacy. This is not in any way discounting the vagaries of Climate Change and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The extended El Nino cycles, including the frequent low impact ones, have certainly had an accumulative effect – especially in our ability to timeously recover sufficiently between dry spells. These are real and represent the new boundary conditions for our water planning and perhaps this is where we have been wanting. This revelation should, of course, inform not only water planning but overall development and economic planning.
The promise in the new cabinet portfolio in the form of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation under the stewardship of Minister Lindiwe Sisulu may hold the key. The reconceptualization of human settlement from single developments like the appropriately lauded Cornubia and Cosmo City to city and region-wide planning represents the theatre of change. We need to bring to bear the now considerable repository of new water knowledge and incredible water and sanitation innovations into designing all new development on the basis of Water Sensitive Design (WSD). It is an area of strength for the highly productive South African Water Science and Technology community of practice, steered and supported by the Water Research Commission, which is rated by the ISI (International scientific indexing) as being in the top twenty globally. WSD combined with game-changing technology will not only ensure a water-secure future for South Africa but also set us on a pathway toward a low carbon economy and a sustainable development future.
These interventions include direct contribution areas of research and innovation toward realizing sustainable human settlements, interventions to enhance both water access as well as resource (water and financial) efficiency. They include New Sanitation, innovations in water quality and the environmentally sensitive water development, a fundamental diversification of water supply options, smart – beneficiation oriented and decentralized (localized) Wastewater Treatment, innovative Water Sensitive Design, embracing the Water-Energy-Food nexus and fully implementing a 4th Industrial Revolution approach to Water and Sanitation management.
Taking advantage of our Water Science and Technology asset will not only significantly enhance our water security. If done correctly, the net result will also be in increased energy and nutritional security with concomitant improved health security. In addition, and if the correct investments are made we can industrialize our water and sanitation innovations and produce for a global market as envisaged in the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP). This in turn significantly changes the risk profile of water financing and investment as more private sector participation – through large corporates as well as start-ups and co-operatives are enabled.
There is significant convergence in all global analyses that from an economic, social, environmental, political and security viewpoint the increase of water scarcity on the back of decreased availability as well as deteriorating water quality is a crowning global crisis. These solutions, therefore, promise to mitigate and eventually solve the local and global water crises have far-reaching implications. If we don’t accelerate the adoption of these new solutions, we have the unwelcome prospect of living out the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2019 Global Risk Perception Survey’s connectivity analysis. It first reminds us that water has been consistently in the top five global risks in terms of impact from 2012 to 2019 and ranked at number one in 2015. It further connects the water crisis risk not only to natural disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse and our collective Climate Change inaction; but is also a critical factor in the failure of global and regional governance, interstate conflict, the fiscal crisis and unemployment.
The possibilities are compelling. We stand at a turning point for the South African development narrative – one that has the dual and mutually reinforcing opportunity to simultaneously improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor while creating fertile ground for industrialization and entrepreneur development in South Africa, Africa and the developing world. It will announce a step change in water management for the 21st century.
Dhesigan Naidoo is the chief executive officer at the Water Research Commission of South Africa.