One of the most important issues facing southern Africa is the challenge of managing water in a way that ensures that our growing urban population can live in cities that are sustainable and resilient.
Achieving this is not easy. The right to water is mandated in our Constitution, but the reality is that water security is not guaranteed for all people in Southern Africa. It is true that great strides have been made but our current water usage already exceeds reliable yield and as many as 5% of the population do not have access to basic water services. Improved sanitation is still a challenge in many areas. Wastewater treatment frequently falls below international effluent standards.
Without exception, our region is characterised by frequent droughts, floods and water insecurity which is exacerbated by inadequate water sector maintenance and investment; a deficit between demand for potable water and supply due to population growth particularly in the urban areas; deteriorating water quality; and a shortage of qualified water engineers in the areas where they are needed most.
In South Africa it is estimated that the gap between supply and demand of water could be as high as 17% by 2030. Effective water management requires that interrelated factors and needs are considered. Difficult choices have to be made and conflicting needs must be catered for as much as possible.
In order to make these choices, stakeholders and role players need a space for interactive consultation. The Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA) is unique in that it provides a home for the many role players in the sector, from local government to academic researchers, NGOs, water management organisations, engineers and everyone who supplies or uses water. It gives them a voice and a platform within which to interact, to ensure that constraints are understood and coherent approaches are adopted. It facilitates the sustainable development, management and use of water resources in the Southern African region.
One of the challenges that we are facing is that all our urban areas our growing exponentially, with the majority of new residents finding shelter in informal settlements where access to water is not guaranteed.
The situation is compounded by the fact that municipalities already lose out on the revenue from as much as 60% of the water that they purchase to sell on to users due to decaying infrastructure, leaking pipes, non-payment and illegal connections. These factors make it less likely that our municipalities will be able to secure water supplies for our growing populations.
So what is the solution?
It is impossible to talk about a sustainable urban future without also touching on solutions to the variability of supply. Water wise cities may include a system of sensitive water management which would ideally get all hands on deck, making the citizens an integral part of creating, managing and monitoring their own water supply.
Self-supply of water has long been seen as a rural solution but rainwater harvesting and hand-dug wells may be an option even in urban areas, especially as the course of the Covid 19 pandemic remains so uncertain and rates and service payments to municipalities are less reliable. With appropriate and directed support for technology and maintenance, self-supply could become not only a job creator, but also the difference between resilience and collapse for parts of the country – even in massive, sophisticated cities, like Johannesburg and, of course, Cape Town, where the ‘Day Zero’ experience taught us how citizen engagement could save and harvest water.
We also need to move towards a regenerative system of water usage in our cities. Urban planners and water professionals need to form strong alliances during the early phases of any urban development. This will facilitate the application of the 5 Rs of water sustainability: educate the population to reduce the amount of water used; reuse water appropriately; recycle nutrients or organic matter from our wastewater treatment facilities; recover energy in the form of organic energy from used water or hydraulic energy; and replenish by ensuring responsible use of groundwater and management of water run-off.
There is an effective pathway to sustainable urban water management – it is up to us to work together on innovative and appropriate solutions to ensure that our cities are liveable for future generations.