South Africa have been suffering for months now from unpredictable and irritating power cuts. But worse could come, as there are growing fears that there will be a recurrence of the consequences of poor maintenance and irresponsible lack of planning which have plagued the electricity supply – this time with water supply. ZA Confidential picked some top brains on the subject, and this is what they had to say……
Dr Anthony Turton. Environmental Advisor, Speaker and Author
The simple facts of the matter are that we are facing three significant challenges in the water sector. I call these three drivers of a vicious circle that make the outcome more-or-less inevitable if left unmanaged. The first is rapidly deteriorating water quality, driven mostly by the process known as eutrophication (enrichment of water in dams and rivers from effluent, mostly phosphate and nitrate). In fact 1/3 of our currently available national water stored in dams is already contaminated, mostly by a single-celled organism known as cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), known as Microcystis aureginosa. Our levels of contamination are orders of magnitude higher than in places like the USA or Scandinavia. This organism produces a toxin chemically similar to cobra venom, known technically as microcystin or hepatotoxin, which it releases when it is distressed.
The second is deteriorating infrastructure, most of which is well beyond its design life, and all of which uses technology that is inappropriate for recycling water back to potable use. This infrastructure includes pumped storage schemes, dams, raw water pipelines, bulk water treatment plants, pumping stations, potable water reservoirs, municipal reticulation pipe systems and waste water treatment works. All are in varying degrees of dilapidation, some having already failed. Sewage works, for example, are almost all under enormous pressure, and none are discharging treated water to the desired standard. This is what is driving the eutrophication noted above. In some provinces 100% of the sewage works have failed. The (Water Affairs) Minister recently announced the recruitment of Cuban engineers to repair these systems, because evidently Cuba is used to working with old and broken machinery, which leads to the third driver.
The third driver is dysfunctional water management institutions. The Nation Water Act breaks the country down into so-called Water Management Areas (WMAs). These are supposed to be managed by Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) that include Water User Associations (WUAs). None are functional to the degree required, and in most CMAs they simply don’t exist at all. Where they do exist they are paralysed by conflict over water allocation, because the NWA nationalised the resource with the intention of stripping agricultural land from water rights as an element of land reform. Farmers have argued that water rights, no longer recognized in law, have stripped them of the one asset that makes their farms financially viable, and they are fighting back. The NWA also calls for a thing called the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) that is designed to balance locally available water resources with political and economic demands for that water. This is supposed to be the single master plan that embraces all data and all political and economic development aspirations, to be used as input to the decision-making process of the CMAs and WUAs, updated every five years. Only one NWRS was successfully done in 2000 using 1998 data. Subsequent to that the data bases have been either privatized by commercial consulting companies, or have fallen into disuse because of the lack of technically competent people within the various government departments. NWRS 2 was a dismal failure, allegedly because the consultant commissioned to do the work absconded with the cash and failed to deliver. This was covered up by the Department of Water Affairs when a few of the last remaining technically competent officials rehashed NWRS 1 – literally within a week or so. The recent appointment of Cuban engineers is a strong signal of Government’s intention to side-line technically-competent water resource managers who do not carry the required political pedigree. This neutralizes the many technically-competent water management specialists that we have because of political imperatives of radical social and economic restructuring.
The implications of these three drivers are a vicious cycle of systemic collapse within the water sector. When I say systemic collapse I mean literally the catastrophic failure of entire systems. We see precursors to this in the recent Rand Water pump station failure that plunged large parts of Gauteng into a water crisis similar to load shedding. We see this in smaller municipalities where service delivery failures have resulted in the death of infants through water-borne disease. Madibeng is an example of systemic failure. Hartebeestpoort dam and Brits is another example.
The presence of these three drivers is being exacerbated by the following:
1) El Nino that is now becoming manifest in the Pacific will probably trigger a regional drought that could last for a decade. This will reduce the availability of water at SADC level and will have severe economic implications, specifically when we have lost the institutional capacity to manage drought.
2) Global warming is seeing an increase in ambient temperatures. Some climate and water scientists at UKZN (Prof Roland Schulze) have shown that it is likely that we will see a 4 degree increase in ambient temperature over the next century. This will fundamentally alter water supply at regional level.
3) The implications of increased ambient temperatures, in the presence of increased nutrient loads into rivers and dams (from dysfunctional sewage works), will be a rapid increase in the eutrophication processes. To give an example, microcystin levels become a concern in the USA when they reach values of 60 microgramms per litre. In SA they are currently 10,000 micogramms per litre, peaking at 18,000 microgramms, and nobody is concerned – because officially this is not recognized as a problem. It is silenced by political commissars who sanction the discourse over water.
4) Because of the failure of institutions, we lack the technical capacity to generate design specifications for the next generation water treatment technologies. This means that, in effect, the recycling of sewage-impacted water back into the potable water stream is more-or-less inevitable.
5) The implications of recycling partially treated sewage back into the potable water stream is the probable increase in exposure to partially metabolized medication (in addition to the normal pathogens like E Coli).
The most likely medication to be recycled is Oestrogen, which will result in an increased manifestation of androgyny in the overall population. This is well documented scientifically under the heading of Endocrine Disruptive Chemicals (EDC’s) or estrogenicity that have trans-generational manifestations (i.e exposure today will manifest in the progeny of those under exposure). Other types of medication that will increasingly be recycled in partially metabolized form are anti-retrovirals (ARV), codeine and other analgesics, and of course recreational drugs like cocaine. The recycling of partially metabolized antibiotics will result in the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The solution is to break the vicious cycle and replace it with a virtuous cycle. To do this we need to first recognize the need for functioning institutions, because it is only from those places that we will start to see the emergence of viable strategies, based on next generation water treatment technologies. It is only from this that we can invest masses of money into upgrading our filtering infrastructure by means of appropriate technology capable of removing endocrine disruptive chemicals and microcystin from the potable water system. Once we have appropriate infrastructure upgrade, we will start to see an improvement in national water quality. Functioning institutions lead to infrastructure upgrades using appropriate technology, which leads to improvement in water quality, which leads to economic growth and national health.
In the interim we will see the growth in end-of-pipe solutions such as filtration devices installed in the homes of the better-off part of the population, that combine activated carbon (to neutralize toxins) with microfiltration to remove bacteria, viruses and water-borne debris associated with deteriorating infrastructure. We will also see the emergence of water treatment plants at the unit of production (farm, factory) to replace the bulk treatment provided by the state. Microcystin, like AMD, will increasingly become a household word and technologies to manage this will start to enter the marketplace in visible forms.
Professor Raymond Parsons, North West University Business School
The difference between water and other resources is that there is no substitute for water. Hence it should be a matter of deep concern that a growing consensus of expert opinion is that, unless SA takes more effective action soon to augment its water supplies, a water crisis could be upon us by, say, 2020. This will be mainly the result of the increased demand for water, of resource depletion, and because of an inefficient and ageing infrastructure, especially at municipal level. Both the National Development Plan and the current National Water Resource Strategy have recognized the challenge – but experts have seriously questioned whether the proposed interventions go far enough, or are being implemented sufficiently quickly, to stave off the looming crisis.
The first casualty would be agriculture, but a widespread water shortage remains a big threat to people, business and jobs in SA as a whole. Future water availability therefore now takes its place alongside the energy crisis as a serious hazard to successful economic development. Unlike in the case of electricity, when early warnings of a worsening situation were ignored, the red flags now visible about water security in SA must be taken seriously. In the short-term water needs to be used sparingly and less wastefully. SA also needs to become a leader in water transfer from good rainfall areas over to where rivers are weak, as is already the case in Gauteng. This network of water transfer requires to be strengthened, particularly as SA is drought-prone.
Good solutions are available to SA, provided they are effectively implemented and if enough money is raised. Official estimates suggest that to avoid a large scale water crisis by 2020, it will require about R300 billion, which is several times more than is currently budgeted for. SA may have to approach the World Bank. The challenge must be tackled collectively and public-private sector partnerships should form an important part of the funding. These solutions need to be developed in a timely manner to expedite the several new water schemes needed which, combined with a national water conservation programme to improve water use and efficiency, are urgently required if SA to avert a ‘worst case’ scenario.
Fred Platt. CEO Accentuate
A serious water crisis is imminent and will ultimately dwarf the current energy crisis. In order to contextualise the problem it is important to take note of the following:
1. South Africa is ranked the 30th driest country in the world
2. Rainfall ranges from 100mm per annum in the west to 1500mm per annum in the East. At 450mm average, this is well below the global average of 860mm per annum
It is also important to understand who the users are of this incredibly scarce resource:
1. Agriculture and irrigation 60%
2. Municipal and Domestic 27%
(24% urban & 3% rural)
3. Industrial 3%
4. Power generation 4.2%
5. Mining 3.3%
6. Livestock watering and Nature Conservation 2.5%
There is however a disproportionate relationship between the users of the resource and the impact of that use on the resource. The most obvious example is where mining only accounts for 3.3% of the use of the resource, but the impact of the mining operation has an incredibly negative effect on the groundwater contamination – as is evidenced by the Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) problem that we face in Gauteng. Historically, this impact has been largely ignored, with dire consequences.
The looming water crisis is evidenced in a number of areas:
– Infrastructure is under severe pressure due to a lack of effective maintenance resulting in the following:
– Non-revenue water accounts for 36.8% of the water supplied. Leaking pipes account for a loss of on average 30% of the treated water distributed. In Johannesburg this is as high as 37%. Lost revenue accounts for R11bn a year in the municipal sector alone
– Municipal services are severely affected, due to a lack of maintenance and a lack of skills. Currently only 3% of water services authorities have indicated that they are operating at a satisfactory level, 18% are at risk, 33% at high risk and 46% are in crisis.
– 90% of municipal sewage plants are non-compliant, resulting in further contamination of ground water reserves.
Government has developed an elaborate plan to address these challenges, while at the same time looking at expanding the services offered in terms of the millennium developmental goals. Although this is critical, and access to water is a basic human right protected by the constitution, this will obviously place further stress on an already stressed system.
There are several challenges to sustainable service delivery:
1. There is no surplus water, and climate change will further impact the availability of this scarce resource
2. Effluent will have to be treated to increasingly higher standards before being discharged
3. Of the 905 towns in South Africa 254 (28%) have inadequate water resources
4. Distribution remains a problem.
5. Per capita consumption of water in urban areas remains high relative to international norms
– Lack of water demand management and poor efficiency
– Lack of technical capacity and skills
– Infrastructure asset management
In a nutshell, we have major challenges facing us – ranging from maintaining an ageing infrastructure, to dealing with the consequences of pollution, and of the absence of recycling and re-use.
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