South Africa’s water ‘management’ crisis explained by experts

“Day Zero” is the day when water reservoirs across the city are expected to hit 13.5% of capacity and taps will be turned off.

PEOPLE WAIT to collect water from a spring last month in the Newlands suburb of Cape Town as fears grow over the South African city’s water crisis. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters) (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS)
PEOPLE WAIT to collect water from a spring last month in the Newlands suburb of Cape Town as fears grow over the South African city’s water crisis. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
The countdown to “Day Zero” for Cape Town’s water crisis has been pushed back from May 11 to July 9, but that hasn’t stopped South Africa’s government from officially declaring the impending catastrophe “a national disaster.”
“Day Zero” is the day when water reservoirs across the city are expected to hit 13.5% of capacity and taps will be turned off.
The Wandile Zulu Foundation, together with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, hosted a symposium on the water crisis last week that featured several well-known experts in the field, including the director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, Dr. Clive Lipchin.
The institute is an academic studies and research program based in Israel that focuses on a range of environmental issues throughout the Middle East.
Around 150 people attended the symposium, including officials from the city of Johannesburg, water entrepreneurs, members of the Jewish community representatives of Rand Water – a South African water utility that supplies potable water to Gauteng province and other parts of the country.
Speaking at the event, Lipchin, who was born and raised in South Africa, said Cape Town is not the only city in the world facing a water crisis; Sao Paulo, Brazil and Brisbane, Australia, have recently faced similar situations as well.
Lipchin also spoke about the reasons for water problems and technologies that can be used to address them, such as desalination and water recycling. “Water is an infinite source,” he said. “The problem is that it doesn’t rain in the right place or at the right time.” In the mid-1990s, Israel was where Cape Town and many places are. We were in a very significant drought and all of our stocks – the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, groundwater aquifers – were all basically collapsing. This was a turning point for Israel.”
“YOU HAVE TO manage water as stock. You have to think about managing water as a flux, and you have to think about water as a commodity... We want to see water as a basic human right, something that cannot be denied to people because water is life. But we must, however, also understand that water is not free. It costs a lot – not for the water, but managing water costs money, treating it, storing it, pumping water – all of that costs money,” Lipchin noted.
Without thinking of water in this way, he said, “We cannot get to a point of figuring out all the solutions that are out there... We cannot rely solely on natural water.”
When that point was recognized in Israel, desalination came into play, He added, but said there are other options. “You have to go beyond natural water supply. Seventy to 80% of Israel’s drinking water supply comes from the sea [and is desalinated], but that’s not enough. You have to value every single drop of water and put it into productive use.”
Lipchin said he does not doubt that South Africa will be able to find a solution to the Cape Town crisis.
“The way to think about water and the way to move from crisis to management, you have to think about this issue very comprehensively,” he said. “Where Israel is today, Cape Town and South Africa will be tomorrow, because you will solve this problem – and the advantage here is that you do not have to start from zero. It is happening all around the world. You can look at Israel, Australia, Spain, Singapore and Hong Kong – there are many good examples out there, and Israel is just one of them.”
“It’s not a water scarcity crisis, but a crisis of water management,” he added.
Lipchin pointed out some similarities between water inequality in the South Africa townships and in some Palestinian villages.
“There is a large inequality of water access, in water distribution... If I go to a township [in South Africa] or a Palestinian village, one of the problems there is that there is lack of infrastructure – there’s no drinking water network or sewage network.
One solution is that they must be connected to the network, but that may not always be feasible politically or financially,” he said.
“THERE ARE many solutions, like on-site treatment of water, on-site or localized desalinization. For example, what we [the Arava Institute] are doing now in parts of the Jordan Valley with our Palestinian partners is using renewable solar energy. We have on-site solar desalination units to treat the water... giving the farmers high-quality water that is increasing their crop yields and improving their socioeconomic position.”
He concluded by saying, “What we need for South Africa... is [to figure out] how to provide sufficient, safe and affordable water to those who are on a network and those who are not on a network.”
Dr. Anthony Turton, a professor of the Center for Environmental Management at the University of Free State said, “the water crisis in Cape Town has forced us to a point where we cannot go any further with our paradigm of scarcity.”
As Turton sees it, South Africa doesn’t have a water scarcity problem as much as it does a “pollution problem, a salt problem, or a problem about water at the wrong time, the wrong place, too far, too dirty – that is the problem. So we must re-frame the problem, and we need this new paradigm of abundance.... We must recover the water from waste, that is the first thing we have to do and we have to put time, energy and technology into that.”
He made it clear that salt needs to be removed where it’s relevant and that the “conjunctive use of groundwater,” in which surface water is used to bolster groundwater reserves, should only be done during a crisis.
“Groundwater is a viable resource... You talk about the use of conjunctive groundwater like the overdraft in your bank... You’ve got to pay it back with interest and if you don’t, you’re going to lose the facility. In the good years we have to recharge [groundwater] and put it back.”
Turton added that with climate change, “it’s not so much that we’re getting less water but it’s that we are losing more to evaporation.”
He made it clear that using the right technology, governance and policy programs could vastly change the situation in South Africa, Dr. Jeunesse Park, a pioneer in greening initiatives, climate-change action and permaculture food security initiatives in South Africa, highlighted how citizens can effectively save water, such as by metering, while well-known environmental scientist Simon Gear addressed how messages about water – understanding and saving it – need to be communicated.