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[WEBINAR] Corporate responsibility in ensuring equitable access to clean water and sanitation

According to the Department of Water and Sanitation’s 2020/21 Annual Performance Plan, three million households in South Africa do not have access to reliable drinking water and 14.1 million people do not have access to safe sanitation. The 2030 Water Resources Group contends that if our current water usage continues, we will experience a 17% gap between supply and demand by 2030. 

On 27 May 2021, responsible business consultancy Trialogue held a webinar sponsored by the Rand Water Foundation to better understand these challenges and how the private sector can help to close the funding gap of an estimated R330 billion over the next ten years to achieve water security. The panellists were Dr Klaudia Schachtschneider (Manager: Water Stewardship Programme at WWF-SA), Mashudu Funzani (Programme Manager: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) at Rand Water Foundation), and Nicole Solomon (Group CSI Manager at AECI). 

Why invest in water and sanitation? 

A poll held at the outset of the webinar indicated that attendees felt that equitable access to drinking water is the most pressing issue in the sector (33%), with water scarcity also requiring urgent attention (29%).  

South Africa is a water-scarce country, and the pandemic has only exacerbated our challenges, which include poor water quality, insufficient water infrastructure, and significant underinvestment in the sector. Schachtschneider pointed out that 44% of our drinking water treatment plants and 56% of our wastewater treatment plants are in a critical condition, with sewage polluting our rivers. “Over the past few decades, there has been a 500% increase in rivers being classified as in a poor ecological condition, which is worrying when so many people do not have access to safe drinking water,” she said, adding that South Africa’s water comes from 22 source areas that make up just 10% of our land area. “The water from that 10% sustains 50% of our population, 64% of the national economy, and 70% of irrigated agriculture,” she explained. 

Around 50% of our wetlands – important water storage and filtration systems – have been lost, with 33% of those remining in poor condition. “On a landscape scale, we are witnessing a deterioration of ecological infrastructure and we lack skilled and competent professionals to deal with this,” she asserted. “Human health and landscape health are interlinked, and if we live in a broken landscape, we have no buffers against pandemics and other shocks to the system.” 

Viewing water and sanitation as a sector does not improve our water governance. “Water flows through everything, and it should be viewed as an integrator across all sectors, which will allow us to find a better value for it,” Schachtschneider asserted. 

Challenges only resolvable through partnerships 

A key message emerging from the webinar was that our water challenges are so immense that they can only be solved through collaboration. 

South Africa loses around 1.1 million litres of water every year due to leaky pipes and reservoirs – a fact that drove Rand Water Foundation to pilot a project in 2019/20, in partnership with two Gauteng municipalities and the Department of Water and Sanitation, to plug leaks, increase municipal revenue, and cut down on costs. The Foundation trained 240 local youngsters in plumbing and efficient water usage, with 174 additional youth trained as water ambassadors to take a water-wise campaign to communities. By detecting and repairing leaking toilets and loose or burst pipes, and discouraging careless water usage, many issues were resolved. “We audited 4 030 households and retrofitted 2 600 of those in both municipalities,” Funzani said. 

He also revealed that the Foundation has partnered with AECI to drill a borehole and install purification plants to assist the Madibeng Local Municipality in the North West Province. In addition, the Foundation is working with mining company Sibanye Stillwater to calculate water savings. Challenges to these projects have included illegal water connections, power supply cuts, vandalism, theft and occasionally violence, along with changing leadership at municipalities – and it can sometimes take months to resolve these issues. 

Rand Water identifies some projects based on requests from government and engagement on municipal integrated development plans but is also open to partnering with non-profits. “We are open to partnerships with civil society and NPOs – in fact, we call on them to come on board as we work in a variety of areas, from repairing domestic leaks and supplying rural communities with water to supporting schools with sanitation and eradicating the bucket system,” said Funzani. 

AECI is particularly invested in Sustainable Development Goal 6, ‘Clean water and sanitation’, and is committed to ensuring access to clean water, particularly in the communities closest to its operations. In Hammanskraal in the City of Tshwane, which had poor quality drinking water, AECI installed world-class filtration systems to assist around 5 000 community members, including schools and clinics. “What is often overlooked is that you cannot access your right to basic education without access to water,” said Solomon. AECI’s Project Purpose, which unites its corporate social responsibility portfolio with the wider business’ capabilities and services in water and agriculture, enabled the group to provide clean drinking water and food gardens in areas such as Hlanganani Village in Limpopo, Goza Primary School in Soweto, and Makhanda Municipality in the Eastern Cape. 

AECI deployed handwashing stations to 100 public clinics and schools across the country during the pandemic and partnered with the Department of Basic Education in Gauteng, the National Business Initiative and the Department of Health to further enable their work around pandemic hygiene. “A collaborative approach helped to find those in need of resources, and having the gravitas of government to help identify those who are most in need of support helped,” said Solomon. 

The company selects projects based on its areas of operation as well as the maturity of communities – for example, a group of women were already clearing the Umbogintwini River before AECI instituted its Wise Wayz Water Care project there. “We inherited a beautiful commitment from the local community in Ezimbokodweni – they were willing to address issues and take ownership, so we equipped them with skills and resources to further enable their work. They hold each other accountable for not dumping waste in water sources,” Solomon said. From a CSI perspective, communities close to business operations get preference, with the company taking catchment areas and geographic footprint into account. 

Advice for companies that want to invest 

A second poll run during the webinar indicated that 38% of attendees are currently focusing on infrastructure maintenance or improvement and climate-change interventions. 

poll2

For those companies wishing to invest in water and sanitation initiatives, the panellists offered a few considerations to take into account. 

  • Start by understanding which water source area you are in and who else works there. Water is a neutral space, so even companies that are typically in competition can collaborate on projects in common areas.
  • Investing in water goes beyond CSI because all companies need to manage their water risk. Ideally, they should be integrating water into business strategy, engaging with it across the value chain, and building their ethos around it.
  • Corporates should go beyond compliance from a codes perspective and look at the moral imperative of providing communities with drinking water – a more urgent need than education or upskilling.
  • Stakeholder engagement is vitally important and includes identifying key issues and developing consensus. Public-private partnerships should also be community partnerships.
  • Clear communication about the objectives of initiatives and anticipated outcomes will help to manage the expectations of communities as many think that projects will lift them out of poverty. It takes time to develop skills and earn an income, and conversations about sustainability are vital so that communities do not become dependent on corporates.

Further resources

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