POWER ON: A surge of water signals that President Jacob Zuma has opened the control valves during the opening ceremony of the De Hoop Dam, near Steelpoort in Limpopo, earlier this week. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE, GCIS
POWER ON: A surge of water signals that President Jacob Zuma has opened the control valves during the opening ceremony of the De Hoop Dam, near Steelpoort in Limpopo in March last year. Picture: GCIS

WHILE load-shedding continues, there is an even more worrying prospect ahead: water-shedding. Like the energy crisis, the abysmal state of water in SA is a combination of at least three factors: resource depletion (and contamination), growing demand and inefficient infrastructure.

Rainfall levels are dropping quickly due to climate change. A recent study published by the World Economic Forum says droughts this century will become more recurrent and severe than in the previous millennium. We feel that already. Over the summer holidays, for instance, eThekwini municipality took the unprecedented decision of asking residents and holiday makers to drastically reduce water consumption to avoid systemic cutbacks, given that the Hazelmere Dam had reached dramatically low levels because of prolonged drought.

Besides climate change, we also have a skewed economy that is out of touch with natural equilibrium: it demands more and more water to fuel economic growth, while wasting and contaminating what we have.

As we know, the mining industry bears a historical responsibility. Acid mine drainage, which occurs in gold and coal mines when rock chemistry generates sulphuric acid, can turn neutral water into a harmful and at times poisonous liquid. Research has shown acid mine drainage can cause cancer, impair cognitive functions and produce skin lesions. Water sources in Gauteng’s East and West Rand already suffer from this problem, and the proliferation of coal licences in Mpumalanga does not bode well for the state of water in that province either.

According to a study published by the South African Journal of Science, the Olifants River catchment is already heavily affected by acid mine drainage. Besides the potential damage that fracking in the Karoo would have on aquifers, various forms of contamination have already affected the Hartbeespoort Dam and Umgeni River. Commercial agriculture, which is the largest user of water in SA, is notoriously inefficient in how it uses this resource for irrigation and other purposes.

Against such a backdrop, it has been predicted SA will face serious water shortages by 2020, but there are many signs the crisis is already with us. Last year, the Department of Water and Sanitation reported that 37% of our clean, drinkable water is being lost through leaking pipes, dripping taps and other infrastructure failures. According to some analysts, this is probably an optimistic estimate, with overall losses accounting for more than 50%.

SA is already using 98% of its available water supply and 40% of our waste-water treatment is in a "critical state". Moreover, a survey conducted by the department in 2010 indicates that 60% of the country’s water service authorities do not have the right permits for their treatment works. A recent government report suggests the state should spend almost R300bn over the next four years to avoid a full-scale water crisis, which is roughly more than 100 times the budget allocated by the Treasury to water management nationwide.

This month, the government of California issued a historic order to impose a 25% reduction on the state’s local water supply agencies, which serve 90% of California’s residents — more than 35-million people.

As declared by the governor: "People should realise we are in a new era: the idea of your little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past." Does this sound familiar to any of us?

California is a rich state, with an economy six times the size of SA’s. It’s home to Silicon Valley and the most prestigious universities in the world. Yet, no money or technical resource has done the trick. If California goes this route, it means the situation is extremely serious. Because the land of Hollywood, the fancy cars of Los Angeles and the splashy pools of Beverly Hills is not exactly what one would associate with water parsimony. What does this mean for SA, with our ageing infrastructure, frail economy and skills shortage?

During the Easter weekend, my family and I were exposed to a four-day water cutback as a few old pipes burst in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria. Unlike blackouts, the lack of water really makes life impossible. Carrying out simple activities we take for granted, such as washing dishes or flushing toilets, turns into a nightmare. And when one cannot shower for a few days, the quality of life takes a serious knock. My household was largely unaffected as we have a system designed to harvest and store more than 1,500l litres of rain water, but our neighbours felt the crunch. Hundreds of families had to queue for days at communal pools with buckets.

The water crisis is a crucial symptom of a collective action problem or, as is often put in technical jargon, a governance failure. A society cannot address the water predicament unless there is a concerted effort involving different sectors and social actors. This is not something that should concern the Department of Water and Sanitation only, but the entire government, starting from the top, the Presidency and the key economic planner, the Treasury.

First of all, we need a different system of provision, which rewards efficient use. Smart water meters should replace the existing ones, and users who save water should be rewarded with lower tariffs and tax breaks. By contrast, large consumption should be discouraged through incremental pricing, while water loss should be punished. Rain and grey water harvesting should be mandatory. As monetary incentives are insufficient, other forms of "nudging" should also be adopted. For instance, billing systems that compare water consumption across households and businesses and invite users to compete with each other in order to reduce consumption have proven very effective in supporting the type of behavioural change we need.

We also need to reform the social institutions that govern our relationship with water. Despite various incidents and the possibility of them happening again in the near future, the rules of my estate (and probably most estates) still discourage residents from harvesting rain or grey water, imposing restrictions based on fictitious parameters of aesthetic appearance.

Although the university at which I work has become more sensitive to the need to save water, procedures nevertheless allow the gardening services to water the lawn at noon, when the sun is at its zenith and much of that precious (often drinkable) water evaporates before it even touches the grass. Finally, we need to realise that investing in our ecological infrastructure, from restoring wetlands to rehabilitating rivers, is the best way of ensuring sustainability. Nature is an efficient provider of essential services and it does so at no cost.

It is the best return on investment a modern economy can think of.

Fioramonti is professor of political economy and director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria.