South Africa's water conundrum

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has been blessed with an abundance of riches, from gold to platinum and diamonds, but it faces a shortage in the most vital of all resources: water.

By the admission of its own government, the economic powerhouse of the African continent could see water demand exceed supply as early as 2013 if no drastic actions are taken. The challenge is not new for the water-scarce country, but it is sure to be exacerbated by both climate change and the economic growth that South Africa is achieving.

“Our challenge here is not so much to invent as it is to alter the way we think and act on how we use our water,” said Buyelwa Sonjica, minister of water and environmental affairs. “We don’t have the luxury of choice and time unfortunately — we must act now and do that decisively.”

The right to sufficient water is guaranteed by the country’s constitution, and the government has worked hard to provide access to running water to 88 percent of the population, up from 62 percent in 1996.

South Africa also needs large amounts of water for industrial use, mining and the production of electricity, whose limited supply has put additional constraints on economic development.

So Sonjica has announced a series of measures to address the water issue, including an increased crackdown on polluters and a budget of $3.6 billion for water projects over the next five to eight years.

South Africa’s water reserves are limited. The country is among the driest on earth with an average rainfall of about 18 inches a year, which is just above half the world average of 34 inches a year. South Africa has no navigable rivers, and the combined flow of all its rivers is less than half that of the Zambezi River, which flows from Angola to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique, and provides some hydroelectric power to South Africa. To make matters worse, the local geology of hard rocks means there are few exploitable aquifers, and the country’s numerous artificial lakes are subject to relatively high evaporation.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate South Africa’s water problems, but to what extent remains the object of speculation. The distribution of rainfall varies widely across the country. Johannesburg, the country’s financial hub in the North, has wet summers and dry winters, while Cape Town experiences much of its rainfall during the winter. The western part of the country is quite arid, and the East Coast is much wetter.

Professor Coleen Vogel of the University of the Witwatersrand, who focuses her research on environmental change, said that the regional differences in precipitation are likely to remain but could be enhanced according to climate-change models. She cautioned that these models remain subject to interpretation.

“Temperatures will increase, but I would be very cautious,” Vogel said. “We’ve got good models in some cases and not so good in others.”

One issue of increasing concern is water quality. Anthony Turton, a consultant who was until recently with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, caused a stir late last year by arguing that the diminishing water quality could lead to social unrest of the kind that resulted in the deaths of dozens of people in a wave of xenophobic violence last year. Turton’s alarmist view was criticized by government officials and cost him his job at the CSIR.

Turton said that mine drainage poses a particular challenge as it carries pollutants such as radioactive material and heavy metals that find their way in the water that is distributed to customers in the Johannesburg area. He also said that the increase in the temperatures of dams that results from global warming leads to a rise in nutrients and blue-green algae that produce components with potential health risks for people.

The distribution of water is uneven, and by 2025, three of the four water management areas that support most of the country’s economic activity are projected to experience water deficits, Turton said. The fourth one will have a surplus stemming from sewage return flows, he said.

“That means that the way we manage our sewage return flows is of critical importance and that is what we’re not doing well at the moment,” Turton said.

South Africa is surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but desalinazation is not viewed as a solution, because that process requires considerable amounts of electricity and the country is also running short of that, said Turton.

Mike Muller, the former director-general of the country’s water affairs, said he has heard talks of water shortages for the past 30 years and he is confident South Africa will be able to manage its water reserves efficiently. Aware of its limited resources, South Africa has learned to manage them and foster economic growth thanks in part to expensive dam projects and the promotion of water-efficient industries, Muller said.

For instance irrigated agriculture, which contributes only 1.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, represents about 60 percent of South Africa’s water use. Mining has a much higher contribution to the country’s economy given its water consumption, Muller said.

Muller, like Turton, said that one of the main challenges to water management in South Africa is a lack of skills and expertise as scientists and engineers emigrate to Australia, Europe or the United States and political appointees with little relevant knowledge are put in prominent positions.

“A lot of that talent has left the country, a lot of talent has left government,” Muller said. “And that management gap is arguably the real crisis or the potential crisis that faces the water sector in this country.”