Let's Think

Drought to open floodgates of discontent?

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South Africa’s worst drought in more than two decades could just be the last drop. The floodgates of civil discontent and chaos could be opened after warnings went unheeded for many years.

Last week Water Minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, effectively announced a number of emergency measures to deal with a fast-unfolding water crisis in the country. Paradoxically she, in the same breath, said “what we will do is reduce the supply …” and “…we will never ever have a situation of water shedding, it will never happen”.

On a semantic level, compared to the “planned cut-offs” that electricity supplier Eskom has become known for, she might be right. But to the ordinary citizen, especially those already trying to survive under extremely stressed economic circumstances, clever semantics will make little difference. In their lived reality it would be the same thing.

A foretaste of the reaction that can be expected from affected communities came in early 2014 when protests at Majakaneng in the North West Province over the lack of water supply turned violent. And it happened again in February of this year when even clergymen, Paul Verryn and Dan Twala, had stones thrown at them by the protesters.

Against the background of the most recent student protests it is also important to note that Verryn at the time expressed concern that the protesters were teenagers who should have been in school. It showed to what extent normal community and political leadership structures could lose control under such circumstances.

When the protest broke out in February 2014, protesters claimed they had been demanding water for years and taps there had been dry since 2005. Illustrating how such protests on the highly emotional subject of water can escalate, two foreign-owned shops were looted, a bus set alight and parts of the N4 barricaded.

Wider signs of looming crisis

But there were also much earlier and wider warnings than just the Majakaneng protests.

As far back as December 2006, the then premier of Limpopo Province, Sello Moloto, released a provincial government water strategy and a five-year water plan. He said at the time:

“Limpopo as a province faces extreme if not unique water issues.

“The extent of over-utilisation of the little water available, as well as the very limited ability to expand sources of this resource, leaves the water authorities and as such the water users themselves facing problems that hinder delivery – especially to the province’s large community of poor people – if enduring measures are not taken for sustainable, efficient and effective use.”

Moloto, however, left the ANC in early 2009 and joined Congress of the People (COPE). He left active politics when he became South Africa’s ambassador to Mozambique.

Now, eight years after he had set out wide-ranging strategic goals to deal with the province’s water crisis, it remains unresolved and, if anything, the situation has worsened, despite over R500 million spent on the problem. This is pretty much the state of affairs across the entire country.

In 2011 a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) commissioned investigation established that 23 municipalities countrywide had already reached crisis water levels with “acute risk of disease outbreak and a further 106 were at high risk, with the “potential to deteriorate into a state of crisis”.

In 2012 of 931 municipal water systems audited, only 98 were given the international benchmark Blue Drop Certification for water quality.

Also last week civil rights organisation AfriForum in a statement claimed it had warned the Department of Water Affairs (DWS) in 2012 that South Africa would experience a drought this year, “but the lack of competence and accountability has now put the entire country at risk.”

AfriForum emphasised its concern that the DWS did not spend the R2 billion allocated to them for 2014/2015, which had to be returned to Treasury.

It also stated that “2014 was a tragic year in which communities lost family members due to contaminated drinking water. In Bloemhof in the Free State three babies died, and in Sannieshof in the North West province, 13 babies died, allegedly as a result of contaminated drinking water”.

In September last year we reported on a research paper by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria on the looming water crisis, which concluded “that current government policies are insufficient to address the potential water crisis South Africa faces”.

Not just the drought

And the country’s water problems do not only reside in the fact that it is naturally an arid country or the onset of the El Niño weather system as the country is in its fourth year of below-average rainfall.

The minister admitted that the country was losing R7 billion worth of water a year through leaking pipes and taps and collapsing infrastructure.

Millions of litres of contaminated water from mining activity in the Gauteng/Free State mining belt are also already daily flowing into wetland and river systems. Estimates are that 30 million litres of neutralised acid mine drainage (AMD) water will eventually release about 70 tonnes of salt daily into the Tweelopiespruit and 500 tonnes of salt a day into the Vaal River system, unless a desalination process is put in place.

This water may soon become unfit for human use.

The huge potential for the reuse of municipal and industrial water goes a-begging at present.

In its report ISS states that the water crisis can, however, also not be solved through engineering solutions alone. “Demand management for efficiency and allocation will have to play a large part to close the demand-supply gap”.

Some of these aspects are apparently covered by Minister Mokonyane’s announcements last week. While some of her plans at this stage are thin on detail, the big question is whether it is not too little too late?

For instance, the minister indicated that as part of the solution some 15 000 artisans would embark on a countrywide project to repair leaking taps and pipes. There was, however, no indication where all these skilled workers would come from.

As the Limpopo experience has shown, announcing plans is the easy part. It is when it comes to implementation that government has fallen short on so many fronts in recent years.

And we have reason to believe that innovators from the private sector, who have locally developed exciting technologies to assist with AMD and waste treatment solutions, face massive challenges in bringing that to the attention of government.


In February this year we wrote:  “A repeat of the Eskom crisis on the water distribution front could be much more devastating on more fronts. For one, it could place the already fragile social stability in the country under severe pressure.”

We also warned that, at that point, government at various levels seemed to be falling short of adequately facing up to the problem. Especially in the face of the fact that “unlike with electricity, temporary short-term bridging solutions are hardly available”.

Since then, the country experienced prolonged student unrest, with a general increase in civil discontent, has seen a resurgence of racist undertones in public discourse generally, predictions of surging food prices and more problems on the economic front, which could see an uptick in job losses.

We think challenging times are awaiting South Africa in the months to come, which could turn into a volatile ‘summer of discontent’.

by Piet Coetzer

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