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ASSAf flags SA’s worsening water security situation in new document, suggests solutions

31st March 2023

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) has, in partnership with various institutions, published a Water Security Statement to raise awareness of South Africa’s worsening water security and suggest mitigation measures.

The new Water SEcurity Statement, which was released at the academy’s Water Security Seminar early in March, is aligned with the discussion themes of the United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference, which was held from March 22 to 24 in New York, in the US.

The ASSAf council’s Professor Thokozani Majozi says the statement, based on the Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for All, is informed by five themes.

While aimed at the water sector holistically, it outlines recommendations to support the Department of Water and Sanitation across the themes of Water for Health; Water for Development; Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment; Water for Cooperation; and Water Action Decade.

South Africa faces significant water security challenges, including poor water and sanitation infrastructure maintenance and inadequate investment, inequitable access to water, poor water quality and unsustainable water demand.

Water and sanitation service disruptions have become a common occurrence, owing to flooding and drought disasters and poor infrastructure planning and maintenance.

“The situation is undesirable not only for the country’s developmental goals, of which water is a central pillar, but also when considering South Africa’s leading socioeconomic role in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and the continent at large,” the statement highlights.

About three-million people currently do not have access to potable water supply and 14-million do not have access to safe sanitation, with informal urban settlements and rural areas commonly experiencing inadequate services, Majozi says.

Addressing delegates at the Water Security Seminar, he pointed to the 2022 Blue Drop report’s finding that less than half, at 48%, of South Africa’s water treatment systems were determined to be low risk, with a significant number failing or barely passing the Blue Drop risk quality tests for excellence in water quality management.

Of these, 23% were ranked at critical risk, a further 11% at high risk and 18% at medium risk.

The Green Drop report highlights similar challenges, with the majority of wastewater treatment works not complying with national minimum standards.

Failure by the relevant water sector authorities to meet the requirements of the Blue Drop and Green Drop systems could negatively impact on the health of communities.

Within this first theme, Water for Health, the statement recommends reduced reliance on surface water and the adoption of a diversified water mix which includes groundwater, wastewater reuse and desalination.

It also prioritises the improvement of access to water and sanitation infrastructure in impoverished and rural communities through cost-effective decentralised treatment systems that incorporate water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, education strategies and Water Safety Plans.

Discussing the second theme, Water for Development, Majozi says that South Africa consumes almost 20-billion m3/y of water, predominantly from surface water through agriculture (55%), industry (18%), municipal (17%), afforestation (5%), mining (5%) and power generation (2%) activities, with all these sectors being the backbone of the South African economy and development.

Currently, almost 100% of available water resources have been allocated, including provisions for the ecological reserve, which should be determined for significant water bodies to inform water-use licences. However, the implementation of the reserve has generally been poor, compromising future water sustainability during mega developmental projects, the water statement outlines.

There is an opportunity to strengthen the circular economy approach in the water value chain as enshrined in the South African Water Reuse Strategy, the implementation of which requires prioritisation.

Further, South Africa needs to increase its human development index through investments to enhance development and mitigate climate-change-linked degradation of water security and dedicate adequate investment on SDGs 6.3, 6.4 and 6.5: enhancing water sector competitiveness.

Under theme three, water for climate, resilience and the environment, South Africa needs to focus on nature-based solutions, unlocking resilience in agriculture and forestry, wastewater management and widening the water supply.

From 2015 to date, South Africa has experienced severe drought and flood events, and the country is already water insecure before long-term climate change influence is considered.

In terms of water for cooperation, under theme four, he says that the inclusive and cooperative approach adopted by South Africa in international and transboundary water management is commendable and must be maintained and further enhanced.

The approach is not only geared to sustaining national water security, but it facilitates regional peace and socioeconomic goals.

The SADC region, with its at least 15 international basins, has more experience in negotiating water treaties and implementing joint management bodies than any other region on earth, except the European Union.

Theme five comprises the water action decade.

In 2018, the UN General Assembly declared 2018 to 2028 as the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development”.

National hinderances to progress on the SDG 6 are linked to gaps in knowledge and understanding of interlinkages across the goals and the financial gap to achieve the goals.

Mapping of SDGs’ interactions provides evidence of possible trade-offs between goals, and opportunities among goals, which could accelerate progress and support improved programmatic planning, implementation and monitoring.

Government and associated entities must concentrate their efforts to inspire and effect change in South Africa’s water sector and contribute to the decade of action, the water statement outlines.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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