Providing an uninterrupted supply of reliable, clean water and effective sanitation services is a challenge across Africa. A 2020 Afrobarometer survey reveals that more than half of Africans believe their governments are failing them when it comes to providing clean water and sanitation services.
In South Africa, the role of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is to provide an uninterrupted supply of reliable, clean water to support health and socioeconomic development. In practice, however, it struggles to do so, with some of the challenges being a lack of human and technical capacity, ageing infrastructure, and inadequate infrastructure planning and development. This has led to the escalation of service delivery protests across South Africa, which often centre around water and sanitation issues along with housing, electricity, unemployment, and corrupt municipalities.
Private sector support needed for water and sanitation
While the South African Government is open to working with all stakeholders to resolve water and sanitation challenges, only about 2% of sanitation water services and 3% of other water services have been outsourced to the private sector, according to a 2020 article in Engineering News, which notes that an investment of around R391 billion is required over the next ten years to rehabilitate South Africa’s water infrastructure.
Private funds can help to address some of the challenges and build resilience in a fragile sector. Although there are perceptions that the sector is risky and not especially profitable, there is no doubt that opportunities exist. Investing in the sector will increase social stability and potentially lead to employment with the development of social enterprises.
The National Business Initiative (NBI) asserts that water management in South Africa requires urgent action. Its Kopano Ya Metsi report series explains how to unlock water investment, strengthen South Africa’s water services authorities, establish public-private partnerships, and solve for specific challenges like wastewater treatment.
Models of corporate involvement in water and sanitation
Building and maintaining infrastructure
This model includes the building and upkeep of large dams, wastewater and water treatment plants; the development of hydropower facilities; the maintenance and development of water conveyance and distribution; stormwater management; the transportation and storage of fresh water supplies; and safe and contained sewerage systems.
There are many challenges involved in providing piped utility water and safe sanitation systems, especially in rural areas. Maintaining existing infrastructure becomes more challenging as pipelines and sewerage systems age and start to leak. This leakage can lead to water loss and the contamination of drinking water. Existing systems are struggling to keep up with the increased demand for piped water and sanitation. This puts further strain on maintaining existing infrastructure.
This model focuses on a variety of topics, such as the effects of water pollution on the ecosystem, human health and disease prevention, efficiency in agriculture and food production, and the importance of water conservation. Education helps people to understand their role in the water cycle, which can empower them to take action and find sustainable solutions for localised water resource issues.
Water and Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) education attempts to create awareness by changing people’s attitudes and behaviour towards more efficient, sustainable water use and health hygiene habits. It often has a strong youth focus (but not always) and aims to provide young people with an understanding of future sustainable development.
Cape Town ran extensive and highly successful water conservation campaigns during the recent drought. In 2018, the Department of Education also launched an initiative to promote hygiene and sanitation to over 15 000 Grade One learners across South Africa.
The phased reopening of schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has seen the delivery of essentials like sanitisers, masks, water and sanitation.
Environmental models focus on various water quality challenges, such as combating the effects of global warming, wastewater management, clearing of alien vegetation, reducing pollution, and encouraging conservation efforts. If left unchecked, environmental issues can have dire knock-on effects such as stalling economic progress, reducing food production and affecting human potential. Positive environmental changes can be brought about by increased awareness through conservation efforts, prevention via strategies like the clearing of alien vegetation, and effective wastewater management.
Integrated resource management
This model focusses on coordinating the management of water resources to maximise on economic and social welfare. This way, viable ecosystems can be maintained for future generations. The aim is to create a balance between providing social access for all, economic efficiency (by providing benefit to as many users as possible) and creating ecological sustainability by educating users to ensure that their ecosystems are not over-utilised. This model involves measures like the development and implementation of multiple-use water systems, ensuring fair access to water, education on the effects of pollution and regular discussions with the various stakeholders.
Supporting social enterprises
Social enterprises – organisations with business and social impact goals as the basis for their existence – are a good mechanism for bringing about long term social change because they can create sustainable opportunities while helping to empower the communities that they work with to take control of their environment. Social enterprises have typically developed in response to demand for freshwater by rural areas that are lacking in infrastructure. They attempt to reach out to consumers while also impacting the supply chain ethically. The success of these rural projects has often led to their roll-out to the under-serviced urban areas as well.