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SA's looming water crisis: Could sewage be the answer?

Oct 07 2015 14:40
Katie Kilpatrick

Business must take current threats to the water system seriously and plan now for a failure of the water supply, a panel of leading experts in water infrastructure and planning told a recent forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. 

Marius Oosthuizen, programme manager for the Future of Business in South Africa project at Gibs told the gathering if nothing was done to upgrade South Africa’s water infrastructure, the country would face an urban water crisis and breakdown of the system by 2026. 

“The government needs to make an attempt to do things better, while business and society must use water more conservatively,” he said. 

Oosthuizen cited water recycling initiatives and non-revenue water recovery as two areas that need more consideration in order to stave off the crisis. 

Rivaj Parbu from global consulting firm Control Risks said the effect of a water shortage on business must be on the radar of risk and contingency planning teams so that they can measure the amount of water used and understand dependencies. 

The state of South Africa’s water systems 

Civil engineer, Jacques Laubscher pointed out that water, unlike the electricity system is not a national utility – water schemes are compartmentalised. Short-term fixes, breakdowns and stresses caused by load shedding and theft have placed the country’s water systems under pressure. 

Steve Hedden from the Institute for Security Studies said demand for water from municipal, agricultural and industrial sectors is only going to increase over the next 20 years. 

He pointed out that factors such as continued increase in urbanisation and income levels will increase municipal demand, while the expansion of land under irrigation will increase agricultural demand for water. 

The future of water in South Africa 

Possible solutions to the country’s looming water emergency include public private partnerships, the recycling of waste water, and recovery of municipal water lost through leaks – which currently stands at 25%. 

Trustee of the Water Stewardship Council of Southern Africa, Anthony Turton said “water shedding”, or an intentional shut down of the water supply to decrease pressure on the system won’t happen, as water cannot be controlled at a centralised point. 

“Consumers will rather see pressure reduction or a breakdown in the price and delivery of water at certain times and places, all of which will be a business risk.” 

Laubscher added that while water shedding on a national level “is extremely unlikely”, it was not impossible. 

Andre Kruger, a banker with specialisation in infrastructure finance told the forum there are many case studies of successful water infrastructure public-private partnerships across the African continent. 

Because public-private partnerships allow for costing considerations over a project’s entire life cycle, this approach allowed for cost effective tariffs, billings and collections that the private sector could implement on behalf of government in a strategic water partnership. 

“Governments remain in charge of setting tariffs to ensure the poor are still able to access water,” he said. 

Sliding scale tariffs to discourage water wastage was another potential avenue to pursue, Turton said, but “the government must incentivise for change rather than penalise for digressions”. 

Turton said that as a fundamentally water-constrained economy, South Africa would need to explore water and sewerage recycling. The country is “moving towards a future of different qualities of water at different prices for different purposes”. 

Laubscher said as the average household disposes of two-thirds of the water it takes from the system, water recycling technology could be very effective and an economic opportunity. Such measures could result in a dual water system of treated effluent and potable water. 

Fundamentally, mindsets around water usage in South Africa need to change, Hedden said: “Most people don’t consider their water usage and don’t realise they are living in a water scarce country.” 

“Our water situation is a slow onset disaster. We know what the outcome will be if we don’t change behaviour, and we have the opportunity now to change what we are doing,” Turton concluded. 

» City Press is the sponsor of the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s forum sessions.

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