While the current drought presents several challenges for local businesses, it has also created opportunities for entrepreneurs with workable water conservation solutions, says independent business association Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) president Ernest Mahlaule.
“Similar to the growth in renewables industries following the 2008 power crisis, the current water crisis certainly creates a demand- supply market for entrepreneurs who can introduce savvy water- saving solutions to the local market.”
He points out that South Africa is classified as a chronic water-stressed country – the thirtieth- driest country in the world – which means that water solutions companies arising out of the current water crisis should be sustainable in the long term.
The effects of the current drought and the El Niño cycle will continue after the weather conditions change, and the country will continue to require sustainable solutions to reduce consumption and recycle water resources, he adds.
“Water solutions providers may innovate . . . more cost-effective approaches to water conservation and water purification. This will provide more options to the market that will, through increased competition, have a positive impact on pricing for consumers and businesses.”
He cites the desalination of sea water – historically an expensive solution – as an example, noting that it could deliver a huge water resource that would address most of the country’s water scarcity challenges.
“Additionally, it would also create a new avenue to develop new technologies and grow local manufacturing . . . possibly also exports . . . there have already been talks about these kinds of innovations.”
Mahlaule highlights that, although it is unclear what course the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) will take regarding the implementation of possible water restrictions and sanctions, it might be worthwhile for DWS to investigate similar systems to those implemented by Johannesburg power utility City Power.
He cites the smart meter technology that City Power rolled out in the Johannesburg area, which enables the utility to remotely gather more accurate readings – down to a specific business or residential address – on power use.
Based on the more accurate data, Mahlaule mentions that the utility can impose fines in line with its policies and fine schedules. Moreover, City Power has also provided customers with a website where they can log on and monitor their consumption patterns.
Should the DWS choose a similar monitoring system, it will create an opportunity for electronics companies with smart meter technology to jumpstart their business, create new job opportunities in terms of monitoring staff and smart meter technicians, and generate revenue for the DWS in terms of sanctions.
While this system is still in its trial phase, Mahlaule says there is certainly merit in having access to more accurate data, but enabling customers to access a system where they can view their immediate consumption patterns during on- and off-peak periods, subsequently effecting behavioural changes, is necessary.
He mentions that the DWS is running several initiatives and programmes to increase awareness on responsible water consumption, in addition to strict water restrictions being imposed in a number of areas – particularly those hardest hit by the drought.
While these measures are effective ways of influencing long-term behavioural change, they do not negate the need to improve and increase the country’s water infrastructure networks in the short to medium term. This means that, short of more rainfall, the effects of the drought and water shortages will be more prevalent on a national level, which will affect business in general, Mahlaule warns.
“As a result of the crisis, citizens should also expect the price of water to increase – though, whether this will be a massive one-off or a staged increase remains to be seen.”
He points out that a price increase is not entirely inappropriate as, compared with other administered prices, the cost of water in South Africa is still reasonable, and there needs to be a better balance between the price of water and the scarcity levels.
Meanwhile, the DWS in November gazetted a draft of the revised water pricing strategy –outlining a theoretical framework that will produce a fully functioning water ecosystem for the country. Mahlaule notes that, for this to come to fruition, it will require capital resources to invest in new infrastructure and upgrade existing infrastructure.
Although the massive and necessary infrastructure overhaul will require funding – the bulk of which is expected to come from consumers – a special dispensation should always be made to accommodate the poorest residents or even small to medium-sized enterprises by allowing for a free basic minimum allocation a day.
“While water is a basic right, citizens and businesses should be considered ethically bound to use water responsibly and sparingly, and national government needs to thoroughly consider all the socioeconomic knock-on effects before making any decisions,” Mahlaule concludes.