Leonardo da Vinci said “Water is the driving force of all nature”. I would add that it is also the driving force of our food security, our health, our economy, and of our hope for the future. Where there is water, there is hope. When water dries up, hope dries up too.
We cannot afford to be ignorant or apathetic about our present water situation. The current drought and municipal water shortages are warning signs that we must heed.
We face two reasonably distinct water challenges: a failing water management system and the threat of widespread agricultural drought. The former is largely a problem of our own making while the latter is primarily due to forces beyond our control. But both require an immediate response as well as some long term adjustments to become more resilient to water scarcity.
A failing water management system
According to water expert, Professor Anthony Turton, SA has 38 BCM (billion cubic meters) of water available. Our projected requirement is 60 BCM by 2030 if we are to meet overall need and remove all water constraints on increased economic growth and employment.
We can close this gap and be water-secure by 2030 but it requires us to manage, conserve and augment our limited water supplies. Instead, both the quality of water, and also the quantity available to us, are currently in decline.
Every day, South Africa’s 824 waste water treatment plants receive about 5 million litres of sewage and grey water (used water not containing sewage) from domestic and industry sources. They need to treat this contaminated water before returning it to our water system. But the vast majority of these treatment plants are not being managed properly and are thus not able to function as designed.
The result is that three quarters of all our sewage and grey water (mixed together) is returned to our water system without being properly treated. So almost 4 billion litres of partially treated or untreated sewage is discharged into our rivers and dams every day.
The result of this is that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of our stored water is now eutrophic. Eutrophic means that there is a high presence of nutrients (such as nitrates and phosphates) in the water, giving it an enriched biological productive capacity in which blue-green algae is able to flourish.
Eutrophic water is unsafe. The algae produce a toxic chemical known as microcystin which is extremely harmful to our health and which is occurring at dangerously high levels in some of our dams. Eutrophic water may also contain other toxic chemicals as well as dangerous bacteria such as E.Coli.
Our water quality is thus deteriorating sharply. This will have severe negative effects on both public health and the health of the ecosystems on which we rely. It also reduces the quantity of water available to us at a time when demand is growing due to population growth.
Further decreasing the quantity available to us is our crumbling water infrastructure. It is now well known that at least 37% of all water supplied by municipalities is classified as non-revenue, meaning that it is lost due to leaking pipes, dripping taps, or theft. This costs municipalities about R11 billion per year. This can be fixed. The DA-governed Drakenstein Municipality in the Western Cape has reduced this loss from 33% to 12% in the past 15 years, but most municipalities lack the technical expertise.
The result of this decline in available water will be severe constraints on economic growth and thus job creation. So although the best time to implement a decent water strategy for South Africa was twenty years ago, the second best time is right now.
We urgently need to end cadre deployment in all levels of our water management system and base appointments solely on expertise and experience. In addition, we need to develop public-private partnerships, a model that has proved highly effective in Uganda and Niger. These two approaches would enable us to quickly get our waste water treatment plants and municipal reticulation properly functional. This would thus enable us to recycle efficiently so that we use our waste water an average of 1.6 times over, which would convert our current 38 BCM to an effective 60 BCM, our projected future need.
An optimally functioning water management system will solve a lot of problems, but it will not address the threat of agricultural drought. This is because the majority of our key crops rely on rainfall rather than irrigation.
The threat of widespread agricultural drought
Southern Africa is in the grip of a widespread drought, the worst outcome of which could be truly catastrophic. It could bankrupt many small- and large-scale farmers and other players in the agricultural value chain. The impact of this on the availability and price of food could unleash a full-blown humanitarian crisis involving mass migration of people into South Africa from our neighbouring countries as well as mass urbanization within South Africa.
If you think I’m being alarmist, you’re correct. With drought, the most sensible strategy is to hope for the best but plan for the worst. So we have to know the worst possible outcome, because that is what we have to plan for right now.
The full impact of this drought will depend on how much rainfall we get in the next 5 weeks because our maize planting season is mid-October to end December. Maize is our most important crop, since it is the staple diet of most of the population (white maize) and our main source of animal feed (yellow maize). A full 91% of our maize crop relies on direct rainfall – only 9% of our maize crop is under irrigation.
We don’t know how much rain will fall in the next 5 weeks but we do know that our farmers have only planted about a third of our potential maize crop so far – and most of that is yellow maize. Experts tell me that under the worst rainfall scenario, we will produce about 4.5 million tons of maize. This is less than one third as much as the 14.3 million tons we produced in 2013 when we had surplus to export and less than half of the 9.8 million tons we produced last year. On average, South Africa requires 10 million tons per annum and usually exports a further 2 million tons.
Under the very worst case scenario we would have to import about 5.5 million tons of maize. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, we cannot be assured of availability: the only other countries which reliably produce white maize in surplus are Mexico and Zambia, so supply is limited. Secondly, we will have to pay 30-50% more for this maize. On top of which, we do not have the infrastructure to handle the logistics of getting imported maize from the port to where it is needed. Needless to say, this has huge implications for food security.
Our neighbours (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland) rely on South Africa for about 60% of their maize imports. So they would become food insecure before we do. This could result in mass migration into South Africa.
Within South Africa, the very first to suffer would be the small-scale and subsistence farmers, who generally have no buffer at all. But we also need to worry about our large-scale, commercial farmers, who produce 90% of our maize. Their survival is intimately connected to the wellbeing of many millions of poor people for whom food makes up the vast majority of disposable income. The downfall of our commercial farmers would spell not only job losses but also food insecurity that could fuel mass movement from rural to urban areas, unleashing huge social suffering and instability.
The full impact of a very low rainfall in the next 5 weeks would only be felt after April next year, when our stored maize supplies are set to run out. Although prices have already begun to creep up, they will increase more rapidly thereafter.
Ideally, the immediate response to this potential crisis must be a single, coordinated approach involving the key government and private sector players. Representatives from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Disaster Relief Fund, the Land Bank and Treasury need to work closely with representatives from banks, farmer organisations, and businesses in the agricultural value chain to form a “war room” which can collect data, set a budget, handle logistics, and develop an early-warning, rapid-response system to provide relief, if necessary.
Beyond this immediate response, we also need to change our collective mind-set and start viewing drought as a potentially frequent occurrence rather than a rare event. Variable rain conditions could be the norm going forwards and we need to farm accordingly. Farmers need to reassess their crop and cultivar choices, especially in marginal areas such as North West province. We need to start practicing conservation agriculture, using methods that better preserve the moisture, nitrogen and ecological diversity in our soil. Under-resourced small and large-scale farmers need to be supported to make these shifts.
It is imperative that we heed the warning signs and act right now. The more resilient our agriculture and the more efficient our water management system, the more stable our society.
In the words of Ban Ki-moon: “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth… these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”
A broken water management system and a widespread agricultural drought would affect every single one of us. And every single one of us can do something about it: we can vote for the DA in the municipal elections in May next year.
Because a DA government will develop a single, coordinated response to drought, and will work to grow SA’s resilience to variable rainfall conditions and higher temperatures.
And because the DA is the only party that has proved that it is able to reverse negative trends in water management. A DA government will put experienced, competent engineers back in charge of our water supply. A DA government will fix our waste water treatment plants so that we stop spewing raw sewage into our rivers and dams. A DA government will restore the health of our water system and with it, our hope for a bright future in this beautiful country.