Towards a water, sanitation revolution

Thursday, May 28, 2015

By Department of Water & Sanitation Media Liaison Director Sputnik Ratau

Our country needs a water and sanitation revolution. In the debate on the Department of Water and Sanitation’s budget in Parliament last Thursday, Minister Nomvula Mokanyane called for urgent changes in the way South Africans use the precious resource.

It is not sustainable to continue pumping billions of litres of drinkable water into homes each day, only to have it contaminated with human waste and flushed down the toilet.

Nelson Mandela once wrote that “sanitation is more important than independence”.

South Africa is the world’s 30th driest country and water usage in many areas exceeded availability as long as nearly two decades ago. Since that time industrial, domestic and agricultural demand has multiplied.

The country’s mean annual rainfall is about 49 billion cubic metres a year. Of this total, the so-called reliable yield - defined as water available with a 98% assurance of supply - is about 15 billion cubic metres, whereas water usage stands at over 17.3 billion cubic metres. South Africa is therefore vulnerable to water shortages in the event of a drought.

About 68% of South Africa’s water supply comes from surface water; 13% from groundwater; a further 13% from return flows (water that is used and then recycled) and about 6% from other sources, including desalination.

The main user is the agriculture sector (62%), followed by municipalities (27%), mining (3%), forestry (3%) and the energy sector (2%).

This reality has seen us adopt a back to basics attitude to ensure a more focussed and coordinated approach to water. There are many challenges within the sector, including dysfunctional infrastructure, a major skills shortage, and strident demands for adequate water and sanitation from rural communities.

The Department currently has a budget of R16.4 billion, however an estimated R67 billion is needed each year over the next decade to fund and maintain water and sanitation infrastructure.

However, Minister Mokonyane believes that with better management and planning more can be done with the existing budget.  

The government has allocated close to R2.6 billion to local government in the 2015/16 budget, through the Municipal Water Infrastructure Grant, to fund local water services building programmes.

Minister Mokonyane said she favoured smaller projects. “You need small water treatment plants that can be easily managed and that can also be developed within a very short period of time and that can cope with] climate change and the realities,” she said.

In her budget speech she spelled out the three key pillar of the water revolution. “The first involves the use of innovation and regulation to reclaim the water that is already developed and available for use.”

The department would put in place conservation measures that would bring about a “paradigm shift” in the way society treated water. Further, it would “seek to move our sanitation systems from highly wasteful, waterborne sewerage, to low-water and no-water solutions”.

The second pillar involved supplementing surface water supplies from underground aquifers; recycling used water; rainwater harvesting; and reusing treated acid mine water.

The department would also move away from building highly centralised, expensive wastewater treatment plants and technologies, turning instead to “low-energy-using and actually energy-producing” systems.

The third pillar involved “improving the capacity of the state to better license the use of water”. This is crucial as we must change the behaviour of South Africans when it comes to water use. 

We continue to use drinkable water for many activities that are not dependent on drinkable water. There is very little reuse of recycled water and the use of groundwater and rainwater harvesting remains largely untapped.

The situation is, however not bleak. An interdepartmental forum is expected to unveil a new water plan to provide solutions to the country’s water problems by April 2016.

We must also relook the issue of water-use licences, especially in terms of the volumes that people are being given in terms of those licences.

Irrigation in South Africa consumes the largest portion of available water. However, clean water is contaminated and cannot be reused because there is a high dependence on the use of chemicals in the agriculture sector. 

The skills shortage in the Department which has largely occurred because technicians are not keen to work in isolated rural areas. It is hoped that a new crop of black professionals will help to address shortages.

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