South Africa’s water challenges differ for different people

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 17 January 2011

By: Mike Muller Former director-general of water affairs and forestry, a registered engineer and a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits Graduate School of Public and Development Management.

South Africa’s real water crisis is that the stuff is just too damn complicated. What do you think about when you worry about water? Can you afford to pay your water bill?

There is normally some water in the Komati because downstream Mozambique vigorously defends its rights to a share of their water.

Is the water in the tap safe to drink? Is there even water in the tap? Or perhaps what you really want to know is when you are going to get a tap?

If you run a business, is the quality and reliability of the water good enough for your needs? Do you even know where your water comes from?

Different South Africans face very different water challenges as a few cases will show.

For a taste of an immediate water crisis, start in the municipality of Nkomazi between Kanyamazane, Malelane and Komatipoort. Through the cane fields south of the N4, you are in rural South Africa, with half a million people living scattered across what used to be the homeland of KaNgwane.

There is normally some water in the big rivers, the Komati, Lomati and Crocodile, because downstream Mozambique vigorously defends its rights to a share of their water. That’s just as well because if you ask anyone what their water problems are, you will be told that, too often, the pipes are dry.

Even when the water flows, it may not be safe to drink. Here the problem is not the water resource, the water in the rivers, but rather the water services, the water in the pipes. Even where there is infrastructure, its management is an impossible task in an area with too many users and not enough supply.

If the problem for the rural poor is pipes with no water, the issue the rich people who live around Hartbeespoort Dam contend with is what comes out of the pipes. Once their pristine playground, the dam is now an environmental disaster. It was turning green and smelling bad even before sewage started flowing directly in, when the town pumps failed. But its state now is often unbearable.

Yet for the farmers downstream and the people who live and work among the platinum mines of North West, the dam is part of an infrastructure lifeline that collects Gauteng’s wastewater for reuse. More than half the water in the Crocodile River basin, of which the dam forms part, comes from the Vaal. People might prefer it to be cleaner, but without it, there would be disaster. That is cold comfort for those waterfront homeowners who can’t sit outside for their sundowners because of the stench.

Down at the coast, the water problems of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro are different again. The region certainly has water problems. That’s because the local rivers are simply too small to meet the area’s growing needs, aggravated by the current drought. The city has priority access to a huge supply through massive tunnels from the Orange River.

But because of the cost of bringing it to town, Port Elizabeth’s city fathers always tried to survive using their own resources. Now they’ve pushed their luck too far and are pleading for national subsidies for expensive desalination plants that can be built quickly. The rule is that drought hits places with too little capacity.

Ethekwini is the exception to that rule. Water demand has substantially outstripped supply but a series of good rains has kept the dams full and enabled them to live without restrictions – so far. The city’s water managers got away with it during the World Cup and, if the Spring Grove Dam gets from drawing board to ground in time, they will be safe again.

These examples illustrate the complexities of water and its management. We rely on unpredictable nature for the raw material and on our own ingenuity to manage it. As Hartbeespoort shows, water can be gainfully reused, but do it badly and the solution becomes the problem.

So successful water management is about sound knowledge, long-term strategy, sustained application and commitment. The real water crisis will occur not just if we lose our ability to understand and plan but if, as a country, we turn “Eskom ears” to the technicians and don’t listen to their advice. However, asking questions is the first step. Worrying about what the water crisis is and what can be done will help keep us on the right track.

Source: Business Report

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