MANY INDUSTRIES in South Africa are affected by the shortage of water, which is caused by a number of factors, including population growth, the volatile climate, drought, pollution and ageing infrastructure.
If water use continues at its current rate, demand is likely to exceed supply and the available economically usable freshwater resources.
It seems that we cannot learn from the past. The great civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome and China were built on strictly enforced water management rules. In Mesopotamia, if your neighbour’s field was flooded because you did not maintain your canal, you had to replace his crop, or your household goods were sold. The Egyptians were less sympathetic; allowing banks to weaken or deteriorate was punishable by death. Historians believe the failure to manage water was one reason for the collapse of several early civilisations. This should be a warning for South Africa.
Water infrastructure is a vital, as our public infrastructure is at risk of failure. Insufficient infrastructure or the poor management of water resources could result in water scarcity that can affect other sectors of the economy.
More than a third of South Africa’s water supply is being lost before it can be used because of leaks and ageing infrastructure. Public infrastructure plays an important role in achieving economic growth and social upliftment.
The country’s infrastructure needs to be improved to address the issue of water scarcity before 2025.
Globally, there is an increasing demand for clean water, and particularly in a water-scarce county such as South Africa. Instead of revising the water laws, the priority should be the spade work of water management, the regular maintenance of water infrastructure, and taking advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to design and implement innovative treatment technologies for effective remediation.
The temptation for politicians is to blame the unpredictable weather or the rules. They use this as a distraction for the failures of the past.
The country needs to address these vast challenges effectively, as water resource security is fundamentally connected to water usage, development, conservation, management and control. South Africa requires a significant policy shift to address water conservation and the increasing demand for water. The situation can be improved through investments in water infrastructure and institutions.
The government and the private sector must partner to develop effective policies and sustainable solutions.
Water wars have happened throughout history. South Africa cannot afford this, as we have multiple issues that also need our attention, such as youth unemployment, healthcare and educational inequalities, crime and corruption.
We have a long way to go to meet the UN’s sixth sustainable development goal, which aims at ensuring access to basic drinking water for all by 2030, and averting our own 2025 problem. Time is running out.
Zaid Railoun is a research and development scientist at the Investment Fund Africa