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Dhesigen Naidoo 

SA’s water challenge – cause for despair or competitive advantage? The choice is ours

The global water conversation has taken a new turn on the back of increased information access and the world reaching a point where it is now impossible to ignore the scarcity of the resource.

It is also important that the dialogue now includes business partners as the World Economic Forum recognises the availability of good quality water as a principal business risk globally. While this is a revelation for most of the developed world, this is not news for most of the developing world, and South Africa in particular. Throughout its history, South Africa has been acutely aware of the fact that we operate in a semi-arid environment with parts of the country already water scarce with freshwater availability of 1 000 m3person per year or less and the average of the country being water stressed with less than 1 700 m3 person per year.

Even where the rainfall figures are much more favourable, climate and weather variability has added to the availability challenges, with periods of intense flooding interspersed with long dry periods. This has made storage difficult and assurance of supply hard to attain.

In this context it is not surprising that the word ‘crisis’ is often included in the South African public water discourse. It is important how we interpret the word ‘crisis’. Its usual impact is unfortunately one of paralysis and despair. However, if one borrows from other languages, there is an important change in texture. The word for ‘crisis’ in Mandarin is WeiJi. It consists of two distinctive parts, Wei means ‘a time of danger’, and Ji denotes ‘a time of opportunity’. This is a much more empowering definition of crisis. South Africa’s challenge should be that of developing a WeiJi response to find the opportunity in our current crisis that will not only result in more innovative ways in meeting our current water challenges but perhaps, more importantly, structuring a strategy that allows South Africa to develop an international competitive advantage.

A few examples could be linked to this aspect. During the 2013 National Water Week, Minister of Water & Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, released the report of the WRC study on The State of Non-Revenue Water (NRW) in South Africa 2012. This was the first comprehensive study of its kind using data gathered from 132 municipalities representing 75% of the total municipal water supply in the country. The study indicated that the country’s NRW was at 36,8%. This represents a combination of actual physical leakage (25,4%) and inadequate financial management (incomplete billing, inadequate collection etc.).

The estimated value of NRW is R7,2 billion per year. How does this represent opportunity? The first thing that the study is telling us is that South Africa is already paying R7,2 billion a year for water we do not get to use, therefore any investment in fixing this problem that is less than R7,2-billion a year is a positive cost-benefit in the medium to long term. It also says that if this water leakage component of the problem is solved (25,4%), then the energy saving from need to treat and pump the currently lost water will be very significant.

A previous WRC study in the Sebokeng municipal area near Evaton indicated that a reduced demand of 1 million m3 per month results in an energy saving of 13 000 (Megawatt hours) MWh per year and a reduction in carbon emissions of 13 000 t in that same period. The NRW for the country is estimated at 1 580 million m3, so the savings in energy and the subsequent emissions impact is very encouraging. But even this does not represent the full potential of the opportunity.

South African municipalities, and other municipalities in much of the developing world, have the common burden of non-revenue services, be it water or electricity or waste management. In many cases the non-collection burden also extends to rates and taxes. An ability in South Africa to effectively deal with the financial management dimension of municipal water services would have the important knock-on effect for other services and revenue collection as a whole. This has the important possibility of economically viable (even profitable) municipalities in South Africa, and a model to share with the rest of the developing world.

Another important example is that of acid mine drainage (AMD) which has become a crisis of our time as we gain the dis-benefit of more than 200 years of environmentally poor mining practices. The science response to the AMD challenge has been robust, with South Africa on the verge of world leading technologies in this domain. Why is this an international competitiveness opportunity? One of the global problems that is rapidly coming home to roost is that of salinity and brines. Centuries of production practices both in the industrial and agricultural domains have led to the diminishing quality of our freshwater resources, in particular the problem of salinity.  South Africa’s ability to expand its AMD science and technology into solutions for salinity and brine will position her for global leadership in this domain.

Similar cases can be developed for point-of use water treatment solutions, low-energy or energy-neutral wastewater treatment solutions, off-grid water and power supply solutions in rural and peri-urban areas and of course water solutions for climate change adaptation. Global leadership in the water domain is a Ji away, if you are wearing the right lenses. The WRC has borrowed these Ji lenses in developing its current Corporate Plan 2013/14-2017/18 and is looking forward to realising these and other possibilities together with our partners in this the UN Year of International Water Cooperation.

Click on the link  below to see Dhesigen's Lecture  held on 20 March 2013 at the University of Cape Town.

Video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6oD5CHXkEk&feature=youtu.be 

Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO email dhesn@wrc.org.za . 

Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO.
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