The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on poor households has been particularly bad. In a survey conducted between May and June 2020, 47% of adults said that, by April, they had no more money to buy food. A fifth said someone in their household went hungry in the past week, and 15% said that a child went without food in the same period1.
Food security is a big concern for South Africa and a bit of a paradox. The country is often flush with food and not considered a place where famine occurs. We have elaborate and sophisticated agriculture and food processing sectors that serve both domestic and international markets. The country’s recent droughts may have been crippling, but the sectors could rebound convincingly when the rains returned.
Water and food security
But those same rainfall patterns also impact food security, raising costs and straining operations, says Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager for Xylem Africa:
“South Africa’s water security is tricky to measure. If you rate us by annual rainfall, we fit somewhere in the middle of the global pack. But if you look at how that rain is dispersed, it’s obvious that large parts of the country are arid and water is scarce. We are a very dry country where most of the water needs to be moved to areas that need it. Johannesburg is the best example of this. The city’s area does not capture enough water to sustain it and instead supplies are pumped from Lesotho into the Vaal dam system. Very few major cities in the world are in that situation.”
Most of the country’s 470mm rainfall occurs in a 5-month period2, compounding matters. To borrow the oft-used phrase, a South African makes a plan to overcome these factors. Yet we often overlook a crucial element around water management and its impact on food security: water reuse.
Reclaiming a valuable resource
Agriculture and food processing uses a lot of water. Irrigated agriculture consumes between 51% and 63% of total available water2, and the agri-processing sector uses around 130 million m3/year. Roughly 55% of that goes towards food and beverages3. In most cases, those in the sector rely on rain or municipal water and do little wastewater recycling on their premises.
This is not tenable, says Mistry, “We have an example of a US customer, a raisin producer, that would spend around $50,000 [R740,000] each month moving water to a local municipal processing centre for recycling4. They use the water to irrigate their crops, but need to clean it from sugar, dust and other contaminants that give the water a high biological oxygen demand. They also wanted to stop spending so much on treating the water. ”
Many South African food and beverage producers are in the same boat, and many focus on treating raw water sources. But, as mentioned above, that’s a very unsuitable approach for the country’s water profile. If we address water scarcity through recycling wastewater, we can directly impact the cost of production and, subsequently, good food security.
Recycling water on-site
Modern wastewater treatment systems are modular and compact, and their smaller scale means you don’t need a massive treatment site to recycle water. It’s very convenient and economical for individual processors and farms to initial their own treatment systems.
Treatment systems have benefitted richly from advances made in the industrial and mining sectors. Today, water equipment technologies can be deployed in compact and focused sites so that farming and food processing operations can internally recycle their wastewater. Systems such as reverse osmosis, ozone treatment, UV treatment, and advanced oxidation can strip all types of contaminants out of water, often at lower costs than treating raw water. They can apply to new sites or be added to existing water systems, using containers or skids for the most appropriate deployment.
Several municipal sites around South Africa have started using such systems to improve their costs and performance. Now, individual companies can gain the same advantage, scale to fit their operations and budgets. Doing so doesn’t only make economic sense. It will also be a significant win for overall food security.
In South Africa, we must make every drop count. Between the country’s uneven rainfall, growing population and shifting weather patterns, every opportunity should be taken to ensure more water and food security. On-site water treatment is one of those opportunities. If we can make water treatment viable for farms and food processors, South Africa will become a much more food secure nation.