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OPINION: South Africa is facing a water catastrophe that has been years in the making


The SA Government’s annual National Water Week campaign for 2021  takes place during this week of (15 – 22 March), culminating in the United Nations’ World Water Day that will this year be celebrated around the world on Monday, 22 March 2021. The aim of this annual event is to educate the public about their responsibility in water conservation initiatives, whilst raising awareness around the need to protect and conserve the country’s water resources.  Whilst SAPPMA applauds and supports the idea behind the campaign, it is clear that its focus and impact should stretch much further than merely educational purposes. More than ever before, it needs to stimulate authorities into action.

As we all are aware, South Africa is a water-scarce country. The mean average rainfall for our country is only 495 mm per year – compared to the equivalent world figure of 860 mm. Roughly 21 percent of our country receives less than 200 mm precipitation per annum. This puts us 139th out of 177 countries.

When looking at the estimated amount of available water the figure for South Africa is less than 2 000m3 per person per year, compared to 15 000m3 in the USA. This bleak situation is exacerbated by massive and unplanned influx of people from all over Africa, which places severe stress on all our resources. Dr Anthony Turton, Professor in the Centre for Environmental Management, University of the Free State, predicts that South Africa will need 1,6 times the amount of water than will naturally be available by 2030.

Whilst we are grateful that many parts of our country are blessed with above-average rainfall, there can be no doubt that in the long term, South Africa is in a serious water crisis. There are multiple reasons for this catastrophe and it also varies from area to area. Whilst it is a fact that we experience multi-year droughts in certain parts of the country, other factors, which are humanly induced, exacerbate  the problem. These include major pollution of water sources and wetlands, uncontrolled mining activities and ageing or insufficient infrastructure in most urban areas.  The result of this toxic mix is the following:

  • More than 50 percent of South Africa’s wetlands, known as nature’s water filters, have been lost. Of those that remain, 33 percent are in poor ecological condition.
  • There are more than 900 municipal treatment plants in the country. Unfortunately, most of them are poorly maintained and badly managed. According to the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan that was released in 2018, 56 percent of waste water plants and 44 percent of water treatment works are in a poor or critical condition. 11 percent are completely dysfunctional. Three quarters of the water pumped back into rivers by municipal treatment plants have not been properly treated and contain harmful pathogens.
  • Due to pollution, only 47 percent of our water bodies have good quality water, compared to Zimbabwe that  currently sits at 76 percent.
  • More than a third (about 35 percent) of the properly treated water that is finding its way back into distribution systems is lost due to theft or leakage due to poor infrastructure. This amounts to approximately 1,660 million m3 per year.

All of these factors are overarched by poor management of resources, corruption and lack of funding.

In 2013 Trevor Balzer, in his position as Acting Director General of the Department of Water Affairs, stated that SA would need about R700 billion over the next 10 to 15 years to refurbish the nation’s water infrastructure and to improve the supply situation. A year earlier, Edna Molewa, then the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, raised the possibility of attracting funds from foreign investors for the maintenance of the ageing water infrastructure, hinting at the possibility of partial privatisation of some treatment plants. Today, almost a decade later, the Government’s National and Sanitation Master Plan states that R33 billion per year for the next 10 years will be required to achieve water security. It is clear that although we have heard many statements and promises made over the past few years, we have unfortunately seen very little action.

South Africans are very aware of the current electricity crisis we are dealing with in the country, and regular power cuts or load shedding has become a regular occurrence. As a nation, we are trying our best to adapt to this situation by way of standby generators, investing in solar panels or simply better planning of our activities. Not many people realise, however, that there is a definite interdependence between water and energy. Water is required to generate electricity, while a large portion of electricity is used to pump and distribute water. The cost and availability of electricity at present is therefore a big stumbling block to desalinate sea water, which anyway would only be economically available in coastal areas (estimated at 2 kWh/m3).

Whilst we are managing to more or less carry on with our daily lives without a consistent supply of electricity, interrupted water supply will be catastrophic and clearly a totally different ball game. The impact of having no access to clean drinking water for a number days on end is almost unfathomable, but is a very real possibility.

SAPPMA has never been quiet on this topic and have regularly and consistently been raising awareness of the seriousness of the situation and reality of the threat of water shedding. Virtually every technical conference we host has at least one paper devoted to water, whilst our statements in the media and to our members regularly highlight the five key factors in the country’s current water dilemma, i.e. drought, inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding, pollution and poor management.

Plastic pipe is dominant in secondary water distribution and SAPPMA represents more than 80 % of all certified pipe produced in SA. We are therefore a key role player in water. Since we are a non-profit organisation, we work not only for the well-being of the plastics pipe industry, but also for the welfare of the people of the country. Without readily available clean water, personal hygiene and health is not possible. Although there is very little that we as an industry association can do about these five factors, we do take our responsibility of ensuring that the piping systems used in our country’s water distribution are designed, produced and installed in the best possible manner and in accordance with international and national standards, to ensure a long-term and leak-free life

The message of SAPPMA during this year’s Water Week is therefore an urgent appeal to Government to make water and sewage infrastructure the high priority it deserves. The Department of Water and Sanitation is the custodian of water resources in the country and therefore has the constitutional mandate to protect, develop, conserve and properly manage our water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner and for the benefit of all people.

The only way this can be done properly and effectively is by addressing the widespread pollution of rivers and wetlands and intervening in the mismanagement of municipal water and sewage treatment plants. We urge the Department to ensure they only appoint people who the necessary engineering skills and experience into positions of authority and allow the private industry to form partnerships with the public enterprises so that we can secure our water supply for future generations. Our country’s health and survival literally depend on it!

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