Water treatment plant. Picture: SUPPLIED
A water treatment plant. Picture: SUPPLIED

SOUTH Africa, facing its most serious water crisis in recent history, must urgently adopt a comprehensive long-term water strategy to ensure that the country has enough clean water for the next 100 years. It is imperative that South Africa prioritises a holistic water strategy to stave off catastrophe ahead.

Last year was ground breaking in terms of just how serious the water situation is becoming with drought conditions and extreme heat-waves being experienced over large parts of the country. Even a city such as Johannesburg, with its usual abundance of summer rains, is at risk from climate change and adverse weather conditions.

Now as the long, dry 2016 winter comes to an end and with no rainfall in sight for the coming weeks, the water situation country-wide is reaching critical status. In fact, effective immediately, water restrictions have been increased in the Johannesburg area as the city tries to cut back water supply by a further 15%. In addition, hefty fines have been imposed for any residents who do not abide by these restrictions.

While these restrictions are laudable and short-term solutions such as fixing broken pipes and engendering responsible water consumption practices are imperative, they will not in themselves resolve the crisis in the long term.

In order to ensure long-term sustainability, there are five key areas which need to be addressed immediately.

Several technologies beyond seawater desalination are currently available. In addition, intelligence such as data analytics should also be introduced to enhance water supply.

For example experiments are being conducted with algae farms that are capable of producing clean water, oil, and even livestock feed. In farming, intelligent, context-aware sensors in crop fields can be used to provide farmers with data about when certain areas need water, instead of irrigating the entire farm. There are many other initiatives in process at present but the bottom line is that research on this topic should be an ongoing initiative.

Continuous research will mean that 20 years from now, we might discover new and better ways. In order to survive in the future and to sustain the world population, we don’t have a choice but to engage with technology so that we can intelligently reduce water usage and create more fresh water. Although fresh water is finite, technology can enable us to create abundance in the future.

Rapid population growth, combined with urbanisation, increases the demand for fresh water and other natural resources. Over the past century, water usage has grown at more than twice the rate at which population has increased.

According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2012, the global population uses 50% more resources than Earth can provide. By 2010 the ecological footprint had already required one and a half planets to sustain business as usual. By the year 2050, the human population could increase from more than 8-billion to more than 11-billion and would need 2.9 planets to support "business as usual".

Demographers are adamant that family planning is an effective way to slow down population growth and the environmental pressures associated with it, such as water scarcity and food insecurity. Family planning is crucial, especially in the developing world. Earth cannot only sustain 7-billion to 11-billion people.

Education of specifically women in developing countries will also slow down population growth as this tends to delay them starting families, it also spaces out their pregnancies and women then tend to have fewer children.

Both business and government need to be incentivised to not only focus on the short-term profits and political power respectively but on sustainable endeavours for the future, looking at strategies over five to a 100 years ahead.

Society is simply unwilling to reward political and business decision makers for sound practices that keep the long-term future in mind. We need to force ourselves to act with the long term in mind. Corporate governance principles should enforce reward systems that compensate corporates and government institutions for the achievement of long-term sustainable strategies; of course in balance with short-term objectives.

South Africa needs to grasp the concept of complex systems thinking and the numerous stakeholders that make up the system.

Society is a complex system, with numerous stakeholders involved, and the same goes for the water ecosystem. Complex systems consist of numerous components or subsystems, interacting in a local manner with each other, but without considering the effect of their actions on the rest of the system or the other systems with which they are interacting.

Water availability, consumption, population size, farming methods, infrastructure maintenance and the like are all linked which creates a complex system. It is therefore also important to involve stakeholders from the array of different disciplines in an attempt to dissolve the problem — since systemic problems span multiple systems.

It goes without saying that the role players from basically all corners of society should get involved from water and agriculture to academia and even the man on the street.

Demographers are in agreement that education is the key to many of our environmental issues and a strong leverage point to dissolve the complex problem of water shortage.

In addition to current initiatives by the Department of Water and Sanitation, the education system must include subjects on concepts such as foresight development where children are taught to think long term in a sustainable way. If we want to use technology as a medium to create abundance, we need to educate pupils from the current initiatives of government to train plumbers who can fix leaks in the short term; to scientists that can innovate new ways of purifying water or reducing consumption in the long term.

Grant Thornton is currently working on establishing a think tank that will focus on the complexity of the problem, but specifically the promotion of foresight development among young people, business people and politicians.

Jonker is director: advisory services at Grant Thornton.