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South Africa's water conundrum

Climate change and economic growth drain South Africa's low water supplies.

A child drinks from a communal tap in Soweto township, south of Johannesburg, March 22, 2006. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

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.