Water Watch

Drought was wake-up call to prepare for a new normal

What is our water future?

“Our biggest fear is that this drought was a slap in the face and not a knock-out!” Was it enough to drive a systemic change in our view of the value of water and catalyse a real transition to a low-water economy?

This is the key question posed in the concluding remark in a report on a recent workshop by the World Wide Fund for Nature – South Africa (WWF-SA) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), international leaders in scenario planning.

While the country, except for the Western Cape, is recovering from the worst drought in more than a century, the workshop was held in preparation for National Water Week

The report on the workshop, titled “Scenarios for the Future of Water in South Africa,” in its introduction poses the question: “Was this drought the wake-up call we needed to get us ready for a new normal?”
“The discussions on our future also revealed 'no-regret' options that would help all organisations prepare for an uncertain water future.  Implementing these options now, will help prepare for all eventualities,” WWF-SA said in a statement at the release of the report. 

Big uncertainties

The workshop, attended by representatives of industry, government and water sector leaders to explore two key uncertainties in our water future - the availability of water and the state of governance of the sector.

The discussions on the future also revealed six 'no-regret' options that would help all organisations prepare for an uncertain water future.  Implementing these options/actions now, the report states, will help prepare for all eventualities:

  • Improve social awareness on the criticality of water scarcity, at schools, business, and communities, through campaigns and social media platforms;
  • Develop skilled jobs, new enterprises and capabilities to effectively maintain green and grey water infrastructure across South Africa, and reduce losses;
  • Pilot innovative co-financing to maintain and protect ecological (green) infrastructure e combating further unnecessary water loss from alien vegetation;
  • Implement the water pricing model to strategically differentiate tariffs in the face of continuous water demand growth, urbanization, and population growth;
  • Commercialize and implement at scale water re-use and improved irrigation efficiency technologies; and
  • Increase access to information to share clearer understanding of water users' impact on water and to advance collective action.

Concluding remarks

In its concluding remarks, the report express the fear that although the Cape is still in the grip of a deepening disaster, “a greater danger may be that the floods in the rest of the country wash away the good resolutions to be better prepared and strengthen water governance.

“Exploring scenarios on South Africa's water futures with the BCG scenario experts and water sector experts, helped to surface our assumptions about how we will cope with different potential futures. Scenarios are a powerful tool that enable us to think in different boxes.

“Some of us have a strong belief that government will be able to engineer solutions in the future via water pricing and new dams.

“Others have lost faith in the government's ability to implement and deliver under ever more challenging climate scenarios, and believe that more private sector involvement is the key to stronger governance of our water system.

“In the complex, real world of unknown political, economic, and climate variables, we cannot predict with confidence where we will end up.

“However, our discussions showed that – whether we move towards strong governance and a growing economy (Big Fish, Growing Pond) or end up with supplies failing under climate change and crumbling governance (Cry Me a River) – there are actions we could take now that would prepare us better for all eventualities. “We have already taken steps towards greater water consciousness as a nation during the 2016-17 drought. We need to understand more explicitly how partnerships can build the necessary skills and competence to do more with less, equitably, and sustainably.

“There are real opportunities for South Africa to lead Africa in the transition towards a water-smart economy, with new technologies and enterprise innovations that

ensure our water security. But we need to take decisive steps now, and not wait until

the next drought,” the report states and then concludes with a quote by famous American mathematician, John Allen Paulos:

                “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing

                       how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

by Steve Whiteman

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