Water supply in SA

“Challenges lie ahead but none are insurmountable” says the 2030 Water Resources Group

‘Official’ reports abound, but it’s not often that the private sector gets together voluntarily to look at the problem of water supplies. The 2030 Water Resources Group did just that ahead of issuing a wide-ranging survey in 2009. Input from South Africa – a business focus for several of the Group’s members and the birthplace of one (box) – was prominent in the preparation of  ‘Charting our water future: An economic framework to inform decision making’.

This independently-produced report is handily divided into five sections, each of which provides an insight into some of the supply and drainage problems faced by Africa’s largest single economy – and, by extrapolation, most of the rest of the continent too.

 

Shining a light on water resource economics

The authors maintain there is little indication that, left to its own devices, the water sector anywhere in the survey area will come to a “cost-effective solution to meet the growing water requirements implied by economic and population growth. So it focuses on how by 2030 competing demands for scarce resources can be sustainably met. Its central thesis is that meeting the demand for water is possible at reasonable cost, even in a resource-stretched country like SA where rainfall is low, there are limited aquifers and heavy reliance has to be placed on significant transfers from neighbouring countries.

 

Managing our way to scarcity

‘The challenge ahead’ is the concise subtitle of this section, which repeats the observation so often heard in the ‘Peak Oil’ debate that “Business-as-usual approaches will not meet demand for raw water”.

It points out that demand in SA is projected to reach 17.7bn cu m in 2030, with the household share of this just over a third of the total. Current supply is just 15bn.

“South Africa will have to resolve tough trade-offs between agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centres” it concludes.

 

Towards solutions

As stated above the authors firmly believe solutions to challenges like these are in principle possible. An ‘integrated economic approach to water resource management’ is recommended, based on the following principles, which all apply in SA:

-         Agricultural productivity is a fundamental part of the solution

-         Efficiency in industry and municipal systems is similarly critical

-         Quality and quantity of water are tightly linked

-         Most solutions imply cross-sectoral trade-offs.

 

Putting solutions into practice

A new dialogue among stakeholders – financial institutions, large industrial water users, technology providers, the construction sector and what are described as ‘agricultural value chain players’ – is called for. In the specific case of South Africa a useful supply/demand gap diagram is presented, a concise numerical summary based on various combinations of type of solution adopted (e.g. concentration on farm efficiency or infrastructure alone) and various projected scenarios, including the inevitable climate change and accelerated economic growth. The net costs of the various solutions are clearly stated, along with a summary of the various ‘tools’ policymakers can use to come up with a solution.

 

Unlocking water sector transformation

This chapter concludes the 2030 Group report and emphasises the belief that “a fact-based vision for water resources at the country or state level is a critical first step in making a reform agenda possible.” It is clear from the amount of information presented from the Group’s enquiries made in South Africa – such as the deduced net costs referred to above - that this country is well ahead of many in this respect.

However the report also stresses that large individual water users, and SA has many of these, have a big role to play in managing demand. Governments in turn need to prioritise the right regulatory tools.

“The case for prioritising country-wide changes in water resources management has never been as strong,” the industrial/financial services Group concludes. “The challenges that lie ahead are considerable for many countries. But we have also provided evidence that none are insurmountable.”

 

Alain Charles Publishing, University House, 11-13 Lower Grosvenor Place, London, SW1W 0EX, UK
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