We rely on fresh, potable water to sustain our lives, health, animals, economy and planet. However, although more than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 3% of this is fresh water, so our supply is vanishingly small.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this finite quota of water is currently under threat because of factors such as overdevelopment, polluted run-off and climate change. This raises the question: “What is the status of our fresh water in South Africa and what programmes can we invest in to support the quest to protect this critical natural source?”
Water challenges in South Africa
The National Water Resources Strategy (NWRS2) championed by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) acknowledges that South Africa is a water-stressed country and is facing a number of water challenges, including security of supply.
There are three major issues that contribute to the South African water crisis.
The first is to the natural availability of fresh water. According to a report presented at an international conference by UN-Water, South Africa’s rainfall is well below the world average, while our evaporation rates are relatively high. We also have no large or navigable rivers, and our available groundwater is limited.
The second is to poor water infrastructure and lack of investment in it, which leads to disproportionate water losses. We lose an estimated 70 million litres of treated, clean and drinkable water per day, due to leaks in our water piping systems.
Finally, the limited water we have is frequently polluted due to rapid urbanisation and development, along with the poorly managed domestic and industrial waste that is derived from manufacturing and mining.
Various partnerships between government, companies, and environmental conservation organisations exist to protect freshwater supply, manage groundwater, and engage in other conservation activities,
Protecting and managing fresh water supply
The Witwatersrand’s freshwater sources have been contaminated by plastic and sewage, with the main culprits being municipalities and malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants. Of particular concern is the failing sewerage systems of municipalities in Mpumalanga, which are polluting the Vaal River catchment area. This is likely to compromise Gauteng’s drinking water. However, Rand Water is taking steps to clean up the Vaal River.
Fresh, or the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops, is a non-profit organisation that works to clean up South Africa’s rivers, dams and water ways. One of their key projects serves to clean up pollution in the Hennops River, which is one of the larger rivers that drain Gauteng, but is sadly also the most polluted.
Their project provides much-needed management and financial aid to sanitation plants along the river, assists with security at dumping sites close to the river, creates sustainable wetlands for continued, natural purification of water, and rehabilitates flora and fauna to reintroduce a balanced ecosystem to the river.
Water stewardship and conservation programmes
Water stewardship involves taking care of a water supply so that it can be protected and used sustainably, for responsible and equitable social and economic benefit. This is generally a collaborative effort.
Nedbank has long been committed to good water stewardship. They believe that the only way the country can deal with its water challenges is to limit impact through a shared commitment. All South Africans, from government and business to communities and individuals, have to conserve and protect the country’s water resources to reduce the nation’s collective water demand to sustainable levels. Nedbank – the ‘green’ bank – has invested more than R264 million in conservation projects in South Africa. In 2019, it committed R25 million towards safeguarding critical water source areas, biodiversity hotspots and rural livelihoods, with a strong focus on the Eastern Cape.
The National Business Initiative (NBI), together with WWF South Africa and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), have partnered with Tongaat Hulett and Mondi South Africa, as well as government stakeholders, to form the uMhlathuze Water Stewardship Partnership (UWASP), a river basin collaboration. This project aims to address water security challenges in the uMhlathuze region of South Africa.
The Table Mountain Water Source Partnership – a group of stakeholders from the private sector, non-profit organisations, governance bodies and academia – signed a collaborative agreement in November 2021, the aim of which is to help Cape Town become more water secure in the future. The agreement will help to build diverse community public private partnerships, improve water governance, and create opportunities and capacity in local communities. The group includes WWF, the City of Cape Town, Danish Embassy, Department of Water and Sanitation, GreenCape, University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, Water Research Commission, and Anheuser-Busch.The Partnership’s initiatives include a citizen groundwater monitoring project.
The Department of Environmental Affairs runs the Working for Water programme. It uses various management strategies to counteract the effects of invasive alien vegetation on things like biological diversity, water quantity and quality, and the effective functioning of natural ecosystems. In some areas they have implemented a biocontrol programme that introduces host-specific fungi and insects in order to suppress invasive plant species. They have also successfully implemented a pilot project in the Eastern Cape that uses invasive alien biomass and bush encroachment biomass to generate electricity.
For South Africa, as for the rest of the world, water is at the core of sustainable development and socioeconomic development. Supporting programmes that help protect, conserve and manage our natural resources of water will be critical for water security and the future of development in the country.