South Africa tackles water issues

South Africa is a water scarce country facing a water crisis. We need to start using existing resources more wisely.

Sluices at the Grootdraai Dam in Mpumalanga. (Image: Jan Truter)

South Africa is experiencing a water crisis, with scientists saying there is strong evidence of decreased water flow and water quality, although the problem currently is mostly quality rather than quantity.

Researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) also warned that continued population and economic growth, combined with climate change, could result in serious water shortages in some parts of the country by 2025.

Speaking to the media on 29 July 2015, they said there was a range of actions – besides investments into large inter-basin transfer schemes – that could be taken to improve the prospects for water supply and quality.

“Everyone says there is a litany of bad news, but working with government we can look for where might the good news be, where the opportunities for innovation are,” said Emma Archer van Garderen, the CSIR chief researcher of integrated water assessments.

Meanwhile, Marie Brisley, the chief director in the Department of Water and Sanitation in charge of Water Policy, spoke about water shortages in the country at the Southern African Development Community National Water Week-South Africa Workshop.

In some parts of the country there was already not enough water available to meet the needs of citizens, agriculture and industry, or to sustain the country’s ecological baseline. (Image: Werner Bayer)

She said the search continued for alternative methods to get water since the conversion of seawater to drinking water – and then distributing it to areas affected by severe drought – was extremely expensive. The conversion of seawater to drinking water was only possible in coastal areas as it would be more costly to reticulate seawater inland.

The water workshop comes amid severe drought in KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Limpopo and North West. Brisley told delegates from the SADC about the National Water Resources Strategy-2, a guiding document to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of water in South Africa.

Its key points include:

  • Water conservation and water demand management;
  • Surface water resource management (operation of water supply systems);
  • Managing and use of groundwater resources;
  • Re-use and desalination of water;
  • Eradication of invasive alien plants (catchment care);
  • Re-allocation of water;
  • Eradication of illegal use;
  • Development of surface water resources (e.g. dams);
  • Transfer of water; and
  • Rainwater harvesting.

The workshop ends today.

CSIR scientists

On Wednesday at the CSIR briefing, Dr Harrison Pienaar, the council’s water resource competence area manager, concurred with the Department of Water and Sanitation that there was no immediate problem with regards to theoretical water availability, with South Africa still having sufficient resources to meet demand.

But in some parts of the country there was already not enough water available to meet the needs of citizens, agriculture and industry, or to sustain the country’s ecological baseline.

Dr James Dabrowski, the council’s principal researcher specialising in water quality and aquatic ecology, said that, with over 98% of South Africa’s available water resources already allocated across various sectors, the country could face a water deficit of between 2% and 13% by 2025, depending on economic performance, reported Polity, the news and information resource.

There is a water crisis and its the responsibility of all South Africans to do their share to save water. (Image: Werner Bayer)

These projections did not take water quality into account, despite the fact that water use was “dependent on both water availability and water quality”.

Innovative ideas

While it is agreed there is a water crisis, scientists are working on innovative solutions to improve quality and quantity.

In an apple orchard in Western Cape, researchers were measuring exactly how much water the trees needed to allow for more efficient water use, said CSIR hydrosciences researcher Mark Gush.

Agriculture in South Africa has led the way in finding innovative ways to save water. (Image: IFPRI -IMAGES)

It had shown it was possible to save water, particularly at the end of the growing season. Research was also being conducted to reduce food waste, which would help to save the water that would have been used to grow the wasted food, he explained.

“People in agriculture have done some incredibly innovative things, and we need to draw on those stories,” added Van Garderen, referring to a rooibos tea co- operative.

Rooibos was grown in a winter rainfall area and was having a very bad season. The co-operative, with the help of a non-governmental organisation, brought in scientists and reduced its water use. It was now exporting its tea under a water- wise label. “Farmers are incorporating concerns about water and soil conservation into marketing agricultural products.”

Regarding water quality, the Olifants River catchment area in Mpumalanga was “one of the worst case scenarios”, said Dabrowski. The combination of agriculture, coal mining, and construction of Eskom’s Kusile Power Station with its increase in human activity, was causing large-scale pollution of rivers in the province.

“It can’t get much worse than what it is,” he said of the catchment area. But one proposal was to follow the practices of places such as the UK and the US to reduce river pollution from sources such as fertilisers.

Land use in a catchment area is mapped. This information is overlaid with topographical and weather information, and combined with the location of wastewater treatment plants. The result is a map indicating the sources and extent of agricultural pollution. Each wastewater treatment works can then determine the level of nutrients needed to filter out of the water.

“We do have quite a number of challenges, but there are solutions to these challenges,” Dabrowski said.

Wastewater treatment

A particular concern was the state of wastewater treatment facilities. According to Polity, the most recent Green Drop status report indicated that about half of the country’s 824 treatment works were in either a poor or critical condition.

Pienaar said the crisis lay with how South Africa’s water was managed. “At local government level there are serious challenges. We are not addressing inefficiencies,” he said.

His colleague, Dabrowski concurred, and said the department’s recent release of a tender to develop an Integrated Water Quality Management Strategy was a welcome development.

Dr Marius Claassen, the principal researcher for resource-specific scientific measures, said the country needed to begin identifying its “preferred water roadmap and taking active steps in achieving it”. A patient, methodical approach would be required, with “quick wins” eschewed in favour of long-term sustainability.

There were many elements to consider: the creation of large-scale infrastructure, such as dams and transfer projects; tackling municipal water leaks and dam silting; improving water efficiency in agriculture and industry; and drawing on groundwater and desalination solutions.

Gush added that, as a water scarce country, South Africa would need to use existing resources more wisely. “This means minimising wastage of water, through solutions such as rainwater harvesting, and increasing efficiencies.”

The irrigated agriculture sector, which had been allocated 62% of the surface water resources, should be a key target for improved efficiencies, of “more crop per drop”.

But there was no single water entity, such as Eskom in the electricity sector, the scientists pointed out, which meant dealing with the crisis would necessarily be complex.

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