Water – South Africa's Challenge – Polity, 20 November 2015

A week is a long time in politics. In South Africa a day is a long time in politics, but an issue has been bubbling under and now is swirling about our ears. It is a phenomenon over which the government has no control: the worst drought in over 30 years.

By Sara Gon, 

A week is a long time in politics. In South Africa a day is a long time in politics, but an issue has been bubbling under and now is swirling about our ears. It is a phenomenon over which the government has no control: the worst drought in over 30 years.

Much has been written about our water crisis but the sheer horror of it has now been detailed in the Institute of Race Relations’ @Liberty paper “Sitting on the Horns of a Dilemma: Water as a Strategic Resource in South Africa” by Professor Anthony Turton, edited by Anthea Jeffery, IRR Head of Policy Research. The full article is available from the IRR here.

The intention of this article is just to try to summarise some of the issues covered in depth by Prof. Turton and to urge readers to read the complete paper.

South Africa’s rainfall is half the global average, so it is a water-scarce country. The history of the development of water resources, as detailed in the paper, is fascinating.

Landmark moments were –

  • In 1961 the State created the first scheme to transfer water from one river basin to another – the Orange-Fish-Sundays scheme.
  • In 1970 the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters warned that South Africa’s economic development would always be water-constrained unless a coherent plan was implemented by the State to overcome this obstacle.
  • The new Water Research Commission and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) developed the science and engineering technology needed to address the country’s endemic water scarcity to promote economic growth.
  • South Africa became a global leader in the management of water. This allowed the country to develop the most diversified economy in the world compared with other nations with similar climatic regimes. One of its great achievements in the 1970s was the CSIR’s development of the first sewage recycling technology. In 1994 the new government adopted the National Water Act of 1998 (Act). This removed riparian and other common-law rights to water and made the State the public trustee of the nation’s water resources.

It gives the State the power to decide on ‘the equitable allocation of water in the public interest’ to address past racial and gender discrimination.

The Act helps the State redistribute farm land through its control over the water that gives land much of its commercial value.

The new Water Use Licences may not last more than 40 years and are subject to five-yearly reviews. The licensing system is complicated and has periodically ground to a halt because thousands of water users need to obtain the new authorisations.

A 2011 High Court judgment criticised the way in which departmental officials and a new Water Tribunal were handling their responsibilities. The Act lists 11 factors relevant to granting licences – from the need to promote the efficient and beneficial use of water, to the need to re-allocate water to overcome past racial and gender inequality.

The Court held the tribunal had failed to take the 11 factors into account – a farmer’s race or gender could not be the sole consideration in deciding on a water use licence. The tribunal’s decisions displayed ‘an alarming degree of ineptitude... and a lack of... rationality and common sense’. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Mining companies may lose their mining rights if they do not begin mining within 12 months of the rights being granted. If the necessary water use licence is not granted in this 12-month period, a mining company then either loses its mining right, jeopardising its investment, or starts mining operations without the necessary licence.

Public companies can lose their stock exchange listings for failure to comply with their legal obligations. Many potential investors are simply unwilling to take this risk.

Municipalities also need water use licences, but often they can’t and don’t comply with the conditions of their licences.

Only two national strategy documents have been completed since the Act was adopted in 1998. The first, in 2004, is a technical document. The second, in 2012, is an ideological document. The latter politicises water resource management, overlooking relevant biophysical facts and difficulties in ensuring adequate water supply.

The Department has rolled out more piped water than anticipated. The number of households with access to piped water has increased by 42%. This has helped improve the living conditions of millions, but has also put severe pressure on limited water resources.

Strict standards for waste water treatment have not been upheld. The quality of return flows has sharply deteriorated, limiting the quantity of suitable available water.

The country’s sewage plants together could yield around 5 billion litres of safe water per day, if the systems were functioning properly. They could return 5 billion litres per day of safe water back into rivers.

This water could even be treated to potable standards if new technology is installed. This will generate 5 billion litres a day of drinking-quality water.

A survey by AfriForum shows that the wastewater service delivery is provided by 824 collector and treatment systems. But AfriForum’s analysis shows that only 26% of the treated water is being treated to satisfactory standards before being discharged back into rivers. The remaining 74% is returned to the country’s rivers as partially treated or untreated sewage.

The State the single largest polluter of water in the country.

Poor waste water treatment is now driving the eutrophication of all major dams. Eutrophic water is water with high levels of phosphates and nitrates. The CSIR says about two thirds of the country’s 50 largest dams are eutrophic. Other studies put the percentage at more than three quarters.

The level of eutrophication means that the water potentially available for development does not exist.

Neither the Department nor most other state entities responsible for water provision have the capacity to manage eutrophication. One analysis has shown that the money being spent on the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Hartbeespoort Dam has no scientific merit and amounts to an Nkandla-scale misappropriation of state resources.

Eutrophication promotes the growth of ‘blue-green algae’ or cyanobacteria. One of the most common species of cyanobacteria is Microcystis aeruginosa which produces a potent toxin known as microcystin. This has hepatoxic (liver-damaging), carcinogenic and neurotoxic properties. Microcystin is chemically similar to cobra venom.

Our microcystin levels are amongst the highest in the world. Developed countries express concern at microcystin levels at three orders of magnitude below South African levels.

None of South Africa’s 1 085 water supply systems have the capacity to remove microcystin. There are only two known technologies capable of neutralising microcystin. They are not in mainstream use in any of our bulk potable water treatment plants.

A small source of persistent sewage has the same effect. 4 billion litres of sewage is being discharged every day, destroying a far greater volume of potentially useable water. It is impossible to say precisely how great the damage is, as the exact ratio of unit of sewage to unit of water destroyed has never been authoritatively calculated.

Almost all potable water in South Africa is sourced downstream of dysfunctional sewage plants and is treated by a bulk water plant that is not designed for this purpose.

Water management requires sophisticated data on which to base decision-making. Since 2004 little water planning information has been gathered. No updated water account – a record of water use, allocation, and supply at a specified moment in time – has been made available since 2000. Current hydrological monitoring is at the same level as it was in the 1950s. The water boards obtain bulk water from dams, pass it through potable water treatment plants, and then supply it to municipalities for onward distribution to end-users.

Engineers on the boards of directors of these vital organisations have been replaced by ANC cadres. Rand Water, one of the largest water boards in the world, currently has a board of directors without a single professional engineer on it.

Solutions require state institutions to become very much more efficient at water management. This will be difficult to achieve in the short term. South Africa needs to learn from the experience of other African countries and start introducing public-private partnerships (PPPs) that would immediately draw private-sector efficiencies into the mix.

Ideological filters make it very difficult to carry out any serious technical assessment of water quality or management. No serious attempt is in place to embark on evidence-based policy reforms.

The following becomes abundantly clear:

  • If ever there was a time (and there have been many) where the government has to govern for the benefit of all of its people, it is now.
  • The supposed distrust by the government of business is a chimera. Government cannot do the job without business.
  • ANC politicians must for once put aside their insatiable desire to profit by our misery.
  • BEE and cadre deployment are fast becoming obscenities. 

It is clear what needs to be done.

Written by Sara Gon, IRR Policy Fellow.

Read the article on Polity here