The State of South Africa’s Water & Sanitation with Solutions & Hope

The State of South Africa’s Water & Sanitation with Solutions & Hope

The great pandemic has disrupted the world and highlighted the global weaknesses of our modern society that is transitioning well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR). In SA, one of the greatest weaknesses is an outdated and floundering water and sanitation infrastructure with a stated backlog of R900bn by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). (1) What does this all mean to the sector and (2) where is the sector now and (3) what are the options going forward, these three pivotal themes I will expand upon from where I see things and hopefully this will engender hope and progress.

(1)    What does this mean?

We recently witnessed a scurry of water tanks being delivered to unserviced areas with great hope for these communities where many still today await the water. The intention to assist the marginalised so that they can wash adequately to stay clear of the virus was clearly well meant, that it failed dismally was also predictable as piped water is the only effective means of widespread distribution and cannot implemented overnight.

The many millions without water borne sanitation, mostly the same as those without piped water, however have no dignity or protection from disease with no quick tank style fix available. So the entire program fails to deliver as it has for two decades. The increasing levels of poverty due to failed economic policies make the available fiscus far from adequate to ever catch up. Actually the gap in water and sanitation service delivery has increased in the last decade and now we have the R900bn backlog which is national government’s number, not mine.

What is this backlog made up in a country where 41% of SA’s water delivered to consumers is classified as NRV, non-revenue water, where most of it (some 37%) is lost in leaking infrastructure? There are three basic themes:

1.      Reduce:  There is a global agenda to reduce NRV down to manageable levels, what are those levels? Tokyo is at less than 2%, Cape Town pre-drought less than 15% and many European cities between 20% to 25%. A practical target for SA in my opinion would be 15% as this was achieved in Cape Town over a decade ago, the technology and implementation approaches have improved since. As a nation agriculture uses 60% of the water resources, industry 10% and cities and towns the balance of 30%. It is in this 30% that 41% is NRV, so 12% of the total water resource is lost after expensive capture, storage, transmission, treatment and distribution. The relatively high cost of water in SA Unicities is largely due to these supply chain inefficiencies that the consumer pays for, this is not a good way of trying to attract fixed capital investments required to boost economic activity and industrialisation in general.

2.      Reuse:  The reuse of water in what is termed as indirect reuse has been practiced in SA for over a century, this was inevitable in a country with limited inland water resources. However there is great potential to reuse directly which means that we are not adopting a truly circular approach and sticking to the dated linear take, make and disposal of the resource. With direct reuse there is no additional transmission and distribution infrastructure of this water being required making this parallel priority a real low hanging affordable option where the technology is mature with the initial development and implementation of it being in SA for over fifty years already.