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Managing water scarcity a collective task

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)/taken March 22, 2023 – Cape Town-based non-profit Save Our Schools (SOS) launching a long-term project, Water in the Sky, at Bloekombos Secondary School in Kraaifontein, Western Cape, South Africa, to further the message of preserving water with water scarcity endangering food security, health and hygiene.

By Kershni Ramreddi

Water is vital for your health and basic hygiene, yet around 2.2 billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water. In addition to people not having access to clean water, a problem that has emerged is water scarcity which is mostly caused by climate change, and the world’s expanding population is further taxing water supplies.

The public’s lack of awareness about how to preserve water is one of South Africa’s most significant water challenges. Compared to the rest of the world, South Africans use more water, consuming 234 litres of water a person a day, more than the global average of 173 litres. To avert a water shortage, South Africans must learn how to conserve water, which can be accomplished by using tiered pricing, in which consumers are credited when their use does not exceed what is deemed required for everyday activity.

Billions of litres of sewage that has been poorly treated, as well as industrial and pharmaceutical waste, are dumped into rivers and oceans. Fifty-six percent of the nation’s treatment facilities are in poor or critical shape. Moreover, groundwater is underutilised, particularly in the agricultural sector. We must seek to improve wastewater treatment so South Africa’s water supply is safe for consumption. South Africa has been dealing with a water deficit since 2015.

This is primarily due to climate change, which results in rainfall delays that eventually lower dam levels and trigger countrywide droughts or excessive downpour that destroys infrastructure, agriculture and communities.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) reaffirmed its commitment to vigorously follow through on agreed-upon activities in the new Water Action Agenda at the UN March 2023 Water Conference, and welcomed the findings of the three-day meeting. Director-general QU Dongyu stated at a high-level dialogue at UN headquarters in New York: “At the critical point of the 2030 Agenda, all sectors must work together in an efficient, effective, and coherent manner to co-create, co-design, and co-advocate solutions, and to accelerate action on data and information, innovation, finance, capacity development and governance to implement the Water Action Decade.”

Millions of litres of untreated sewage have streamed into the sea, rivers, harbours and oceans in and around Durban since the April 2022 floods crippled an already failing sewage and water system. Many of the city’s beaches were forced to close between April and December last year owing to high concentrations of E coli, a bacterium that can cause fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea. The municipality estimates that eight sewage treatment plants were damaged by the April floods at a total cost of R800 million.

The situation has worsened due to the expansion of informal settlements outside of the city that dump waste into rivers and streams; vandalism of devices created to collect huge solid waste; and theft of metal components from pump stations that are later sold as scrap. Water trucks and tankers were made available to communities as short-term fixes. Yet, there have been numerous cases of communities protesting service delivery as a result of shortages and water scarcity. Umgeni Water, a state-owned water entity, said that Eskom’s load shedding was having an impact on the distribution of drinking water to municipalities in its service areas.

Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)/taken April 15, 2022 – Clean up operations on Durban’s beachfront near the Umgeni river mouth at Blue lagoon after devastating floods. Luke Lerothooi who has recently moved to Durban from Johannesburg gives his time with many others to try sort the plastics out of the debris left on the beaches after the floods.

Umgeni Water said that during and after load shedding, hundreds of thousands of residents in the municipalities of uMgungundlovu, Msunduzi, iLembe, Ugu, Harry Gwala, King Cetshwayo, and eThekwini were unable to access drinking water. It expressed displeasure in a statement: “When the power supply is restored, it takes at least an hour for the supply mechanisms, both in the bulk and reticulation networks, to return to full functionality. What little storage remains in reservoirs begins emptying out, and there is no accompanying replenishment. This leads to supply interruptions to consumers”.

South Africa will still experience a water problem in the 20 years that follow, even if it uses less water and implements all of the existing government plans. There are solutions. However, changing the situation will need a large financial commitment and political determination. Action on a number of particular initiatives is required on both the supply and demand sides. Several measures can be used to boost the water supply.

Municipal wastewater is only partially treated. Before it is released downstream, much of the remaining material has not been thoroughly treated. In the agricultural industry, groundwater is underutilised. This might allow surface water to be used in other areas. Also, South Africans need to consume less water due to the high demand for it in the country. Water conservation incentives, such as tiered pricing, incentives for customers to buy water-saving equipment, and updated building rules are necessary.

The nation may restore balance to its water sector by decreasing per capita use in the municipal sector, increasing the quantity of wastewater that is treated and returned to the system, using groundwater more extensively in agriculture, and phasing out coal-fired power plants. Nobody can predict the amount of rain that will fall over the next decade. Nonetheless, it is evident that the nation is consuming more water than it has access to. Every day that goes by makes it harder and more expensive to repair the issue.

A co-ordinated strategy for managing water is what is needed and it involves all three levels of government as well as civil society and individual citizens. While provincial and municipal governments can do more to minimise demand, the national government can invest in large-scale water infrastructure. In addition to ensuring that households have access to water, fixing our wastewater treatment and educating people about water conservation and how they can lessen the effects of climate change, we also need to enhance sanitation.

If everyone co-operates, we can discover workable solutions to the continent of Africa and South Africa’s water crisis.

Kershni Ramreddi is an energy and just transition project officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.