South Africa: ‘South Africa’s Freshwater Realities Need to be Acknowledged, Followed by Less Talking to Win Arguments’

Water is a basic human need and a fundamental resource essential to our existence. Challenges brought about by its scarcity remind us how it sustains our world. Lacking access to clean, reliable water sources, communities face challenges. Health deteriorates as waterborne diseases rise, agriculture suffers, industries stumble, and daily life becomes a huge struggle. The absence of water amplifies disparities within societies making the addressing of water scarcity a priority because when there’s a shortage of water, human life faces grave risks, including dehydration, illness from waterborne diseases, food scarcity, and overall diminished well-being.

South Africa has faced water challenges due to a combination of factors, including climate variability, increasing demand, population growth, water mismanagement, and droughts. Several regions in the country have experienced water scarcity, and there have been instances of water restrictions and rationing in some areas.

South Africa’s main sources of water include:

Surface water: This comes from rivers, dams, and lakes. Some of the major rivers in South Africa include the Orange River, Limpopo River, Vaal River, and the Tugela River.

Groundwater: Aquifers and underground reservoirs also serve as important water sources for various regions in South Africa.

Rainwater harvesting: In some areas, rainwater harvesting techniques are employed to capture and store rainwater for domestic and agricultural use.

Reclaimed or recycled water: Water recycling and reuse initiatives have been implemented to augment water supplies and reduce overall water demand.

40th driest country in the world

According to Professor Anja du Plessis, a research specialist in water resource management and associate professor at the University of South Africa, South Africa’s primary water source is surface water, followed by return flows which support surface water, groundwater, and lastly, other water sources such as seawater/ brackish water desalinisation. A significant portion of the country’s surface water resources is also imported from neighbouring Lesotho, which supports the economic heart of the country, the Gauteng Province.

The South African government, along with various water authorities and organizations, has been working to address the water challenges through water conservation, infrastructure improvements, water efficiency measures, and public awareness campaigns. Additionally, desalination plants have been considered in coastal regions to increase water supply options, according to the South African Department of Water and Sanitation. Desalination is a technique where the excess salts are removed from sea water or brackish water converting it into safe potable or usable water.

The country ranks as the 40th driest country in the world, says Du Plessis, and is classified as a water-stressed country and with more than half of its Water Management Areas (WMAs) experiencing a deficit, shows that water withdrawals from water users exceed the sustainable level of water supply. Water withdrawals are defined as freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources, either permanently or temporarily, and conveyed to a place of use.

“The country’s water availability reality needs to be acknowledged and addressed as water demand is predicted to outstrip supply by as early as 2025, with some research suggesting that this point was already achieved in 2017,” says Du Plessis.

“It should be noted that, despite surface water sources being the country’s dominant water source, not all of surface water sources are available for withdrawal. Some surface water needs to be retained in dams and rivers to maintain ecological health of a water system or due to downstream requirements… Importantly, the second largest source of renewable water in the country is treated municipal wastewater which is either directly re-used or released back into the system for downstream use. Desalination of seawater is considered the final source of renewable water, currently constitutes a small portion of the total despite South Africa’s long coastline and can therefore be described as an untapped water source which should be considered,” says Du Plessis.

According to Du Plessis, South Africa invested a significantly into water storage for the primary purpose of supporting the growing demands of agriculture and municipal or domestic water use sectors. She says the continued increase in water stress across the country led to water being ranked as the second highest risk for business activities, primarily attributed to uneven distribution of water resources and rainfall, and extreme climate and evaporation rates exceeding the amount of rainfall received and contributing to physical water scarcity.

The climate crisis

Du Plessis says climate change is predicted to have various effects on the world’s water resources. She says increased climate variability will have adverse effects on water availability, quality as well as quantity of water for basic human needs and sanitation. “It also poses a great threat for continued human rights to water and sanitation at varying magnitudes. Climate change will be accompanied by the intensification of water scarcity through changing rainfall patterns and increasing water demand by all major water use sectors. The accompanied extreme weather events, like floods and prolonged droughts, will also have the potential to damage vital water and sanitation infrastructure as well as services in homes, healthcare facilities and food supplies.”

“…The continuously expanding populations, growing economies and predicted climate change effects will incessantly exert additional pressure on the quality of water resources and have negative knock-on effects such as reducing crop yields, compromising food security as well as societal health risks…,” says Du Plessis.

She says the country’s water sources are facing numerous water quality challenges, mainly attributed to human activities and the lack of enforcement of existing legislation and policies. Primary pollution challenges include large volumes of un- or sub-treated wastewater discharged from dysfunctional wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) introducing excessive nutrients, phosphates and coliforms, discharge of industrial effluents into rivers, discharge of mining waste introducing heavy metals into water sources and agriculture which uses pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers introducing salts, chemicals and other toxic substances into receiving water sources through runoff.

South Africa needs to invest in increasing monitoring of its water resources

“Continued pollution of the country’s already scarce and under pressure water resources have led to the overall deterioration of South Africa’s water resources and created five major water quality challenges namely eutrophication, salinisation, sedimentation, acidification and microbiological pollution, with numerous real- world examples of these immense water quality challenges across the country.”

According to Du Plessis, South Africa shares the following four major river systems with neighbouring countries:

1. The Orange-Senqu system is shared with – Lesotho and Namibia,

2. The Limpopo River is shared with – Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique,

3. The Incomati system is shared with Swaziland; and

4. The Usutu/Pongola-Maputo system is shared with – Mozambique and Swaziland.

In terms of promoting water conservation and efficient water use, Du Plessis says the monitoring and enforcement of water standards and guidelines is a major issue as there is little evidence of accountability and/or transparency. “…The continued sewage pollution of the Vaal River is a perfect example of despite having commendable legislation, policies and strategies in place, the absence of actual enforcement of these ultimately leads to continued pollution, worsening water quality to such an extent that it becomes unfit for use and overall unaccountability – setting the trend for further pollution due to non-enforcement, no consequence and overall unaccountability.”

South Africa needs to invest in increasing monitoring of its water resources, Du Plessis says. “The City of Cape Town’s avoidance of “Day Zero” was through the implementation of various strategies such as increase in awareness of water conservation to create water stewardship within communities. Other strategies include water demand management by addressing poor water efficiency in agriculture and domestic water supply.”

She says that South Africa’s freshwater realities need to be acknowledged, followed by less talking to “win arguments”. “…The country needs to start to acknowledge the current water crises, try and solve known freshwater reality instead of treating symptoms. The country’s freshwater reality will remain bleak if actual actions are not taken before 2025.”

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