South Africa has the capacity and resources to mitigate the devastating water crisis it is facing. In a recently released, insightful report by the Water Research Commission in collaboration with the Institute for Security Studies, titled A Delicate Balance – Water Scarcity in South Africa, evidence shows that South Africa can manage its national–level water system by using policies and technologies that already exist.
If policymakers can focus on policies that encourage or nudge consumers to save water, such as tiered pricing; improve water infrastructure, especially wastewater treatment plants; and exploit new innovations, such as desalination and renewable energy, South Africa's water woes will be minimised significantly.
However, time is of the essence and further delays on policy decisions will exacerbate existing water issues.
The biggest task in the water sector is encouraging water conservation and reducing demand. This is purely a mindset and behavioural change aspect. The government needs to supplement tiered pricing mechanisms with an intensive water conservation awareness campaign. At the moment, the department of water and sanitation has attempted a few awareness campaigns that include a scary looking mascot named Splash and a few media engagements.
The government needs to juggle conservation and expanding access to clean water for those who don't have it yet.
Its efforts have yielded little results. The department should enlist the help of young people (the NYDA, university students, performing artists, young business and political leaders) who have reach and influence to develop and carry the message that a scarce resource is heavily constrained and needs conserving.
According to the report, about 60 percent of the country's wastewater is untreated and a survey of 88 municipalities found that more than two-thirds of the wastewater treatment facilities examined did not meet minimum quality control standards. This is an infrastructure maintenance issue that can be resolved by attracting recently trained young artisans and engineers to repair the infrastructure and treat wastewater.
Wastewater treatment is a complex yet achievable measure. To prevent countrywide panic in South Africa over the water crisis, policymakers should consider increasing the amount of wastewater that is treated and reused. This will increase and buffer the economy and environment from devastating consequences. TVET college, university and technical college students can be roped in to find solutions to making wastewater treatments more affordable and accessible.
Another resourceful and severely underused approach is to increase the extraction of groundwater. There is no data on how much groundwater can be extracted, but the water department is confident there is room to exploit this mechanism.
The agricultural sector, which consumes the most water in South Africa, would benefit from an increase in groundwater extraction. Industry experts say groundwater extraction is a poorly understood and managed resource, most likely because of its hidden nature and the lack of adequate knowledge and physical data pertaining to aquifer characteristics and behaviour, such as recharge, discharge, base flow and aquifer-dependent ecosystems.
It is imperative that policymakers forge ahead in reconciling the country's water demand and supply. Climate change, an expanding population, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation are imminent factors that show there is no time to delay implementation. The government needs to juggle conservation and expanding access to clean water for those who don't have it yet.
Young people must be at the forefront of implementation, whether communicating the awareness campaign or helping establish affordable desalination plants, technologies and other infrastructure.
Being technophobes in a time of crisis is proving unhelpful. Desalination accounts for less than 1 percent of South Africa's drinking water. In the past, it has been dismissed as too expensive to include in the overall water strategy. If the water crisis in Cape Town is anything to go by, refusing to use desalination is proving to be costly.
In a country where young people are the majority, with a 51.1 percent unemployment rate, every single policy planning and decision must be mindful of the youth and include young people at every stage of the implementation process.
A water conservation policy is no different, young people must be at the forefront of implementation, whether communicating the awareness campaign or helping establish affordable desalination plants, technologies and other infrastructure.