South Africa – facing its most serious water crisis in recent history – must urgently adopt a comprehensive long-term water strategy to ensure that the country has enough clean water for the next 100 years, according to Grant Thornton.
Grant Thornton Director focusing on future studies, Michiel Jonker says that it is imperative that South Africa now prioritises a holistic water strategy to stave off catastrophe ahead.
“2015 has been a ground breaking year in terms of just how serious the water situation is with drought conditions and extreme heat-waves being experienced over large parts of the country,” he said. “We have also realised that even a city such as Johannesburg, with its usual abundance of summer rains, is at risk from climate change and adverse weather conditions,” he said.
Jonker added that while short-term solutions such as fixing broken pipes and engendering responsible water consumption practices were imperative, they would in themselves not resolve the crisis in the long term. Jonker identified five areas that need to be addressed immediately to ensure long-term sustainability.
Investing into technology and intelligence
Jonker said several technologies beyond seawater desalination were currently available. In addition, intelligence such as data analytics should also be introduced to enhance water supply.
For example experiments are being conducted with algae farms that are capable of producing clean water, oil, and even livestock feed. In farming, intelligent, context-aware sensors in crop fields can be used to provide farmers with intelligence about when certain areas need water, instead of irrigating the entire farm. Jonker added that there are many other initiatives in process at present but the bottom line is that research on this topic should be an ongoing initiative.
“Continuous research will mean that 20 years from now, we might discover new and better ways.”
“In order to survive in the future and to sustain the world population, we don’t have a choice but to engage with technology in order to intelligently reduce water usage and create more fresh water,” said Jonker. “Although fresh water is finite, technology can enable us to create abundance in the future.”
Prioritising family planning
Rapid population growth, combined with urbanisation, increases the demand for fresh water and other natural resources. Over the last century, water usage has grown at more than twice the rate at which population has increased.
According to a WWF report in 2012, the global population uses 50% more resources than Earth can provide. By 2010 the ecological footprint had already required one and a half planets to sustain business as usual. By the year 2050, the human population could vary from more than 8 billion to more than 11 billion and would need 2.9 planets to support ‘business as usual’.
“Demographers are adamant that family planning is an effective way to slow down population growth and the environmental pressures associated with it, such as water scarcity and food insecurity,” said Jonker. “Family planning is crucial, especially in the developing world. Earth cannot sustain 7 to 11 billion people”.
Education of specifically women in developing countries will also slow down population growth as educated women tend to start families at a later age, space their pregnancies and have fewer children.
Incentivising of public and private sectors
Jonker says that both business and government needed to be incentivised to not only focus on the short-term profits and political power respectively, but on sustainable endeavours for the future, looking at strategies over five to a hundred years ahead.
“Society is simply unwilling to reward political and business decision makers for sound practices that keep the long-term future in mind. We need to force ourselves to act with the long term in mind,” said Jonker. “Corporate governance principles should enforce reward systems that compensate corporates and government institutions for the achievement of long-term sustainable strategies; of course in balance with short-term objectives.”
Embracing complex thinking
Jonker says it is important to grasp the concept of complex systems thinking and the numerous stakeholders that make up the system.
“Society is a complex system, with numerous stakeholders involved – and the same goes for the water ecosystem. Complex systems consist of numerous components or sub systems, interacting in a local manner with each other – but without considering the impact of their actions on the rest of the system or the other systems they are interacting with.”
Water availability, consumption, population size, farming methods, infrastructure maintenance and the like are all linked which creates a complex system. It is therefore also important to involve stakeholders from the array of different disciplines in an attempt to dissolve the problem – since systemic problems span multiple systems.
“It goes without saying that the role players from basically all corners of society should get involved from water and agriculture to academia and even the man on the street,” said Jonker.
Introducing sustainability into the education system
Jonker says that demographers are in agreement that education is the key to many of our environmental issues and a strong leverage point to dissolve the complex problem of water shortage.
“In addition to current initiatives by the Department of Water and Sanitation, the education system must include subjects on concepts such as foresight development where children are taught to think long term in a sustainable way,” said Jonker. “In order to use technology as a medium to create abundance, we need to educate pupils from the current initiatives of Government to train plumbers who can fix leaks in the short term; to scientists that can innovate new ways of purifying water or reducing consumption in the long term.”
Grant Thornton is currently working on establishing a think tank that will focus on the complexity of the problem, but specifically the promotion of foresight development among young people, business people and politicians.