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Skills and expertise exist to solve water challenges, concrete experts told

Local engineering and scientific expertise already exist to solve South Africa’s ever-deepening water and sanitation crisis. However, these are yet to be fully harnessed by government to help to articulate a clear vision to decisively arrest the decline which threatens to significantly exacerbate the “triple challenges” of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

This is according to Dr Anthony Turton, a renowned scientist specialising in water-resource management. He was addressing the many built-environment professionals who attended the Cement & Concrete Society South Africa’s Working for Water Roadshow. Held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, the event provided an important forum to unpack the extent of the water and sanitation crisis and, importantly, find solutions and mobilise action.

Dr Turton reminded delegates that South Africa was already in the midst of a crisis. “South Africa became a water-constrained economy as early as 2002. This was when the National Water Resource Strategy indicated that the country had allocated 98% of all available water. It is no longer a looming problem,” he said.

Worsening and widespread water shortages are already posing a severe risk to a beleaguered economy. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, using 60% of the country’s available resources. Meanwhile, mining and industry account for about 6% of total water consumption in the country.

However, Dr Turton believes that the sanitation crisis is the single biggest challenge that the country currently faces. This is considering the severe risk that it poses to the health of all South African citizens and the cost of productivity losses to the economy.

The country’s more than 800 potable water systems have been overwhelmed by the highly contaminated water that flows into the country’s rivers and dams. At present, only 10% of the 7-billion litres of sewage that is produced daily is treated to a standard considered to be safe for direct human contact. The state is the biggest polluter of water by far, dwarfing industrial flows significantly. Even the best performing bulk water supplier in the country is buckling under the increasingly high biological load entering its water-treatment plants.

Most of the country’s water and sanitation problems are due to neglect of existing infrastructure and poor planning at policymaking level which, ordinarily, is influenced by political ideology as opposed to developing the best solutions. This is being compounded by widespread corruption.

Therefore, Dr Turton, reemphasised the need for a team of apolitical technical experts to help government navigate the dire water and sanitation crisis that the country is facing.

He noted that political will to find sustainable solutions to the problems that are clearly articulated in an informed and carefully considered and formed policy and strategy would also attract much-needed private capital into the country’s water and sanitation industry. This is in addition to facilitating more technological innovation by the private sector to optimise processes.

According to Turton, efforts should mainly be geared at water recovery, including desalination; reuse; and recycling which, he believes, have the potential to make a large and lasting impact.

“If we multiply the 38-billion-m3 of water that is accessible from our dams 1,6 times, we derive at the 63-billion-m3 that we will need in about six years’ time at current consumption levels. This can be achieved by recovery, reuse and recycling of South Africa’s total water resources,” Turton said.

However, as Dr. Turton noted, this approach requires a complete paradigm shift in the way in which water is currently being managed. At present, water is viewed as a single-use stock, requiring dams and inter-basin transfers to be constructed to ensure security of supply. The world over, this approach has been the driver of industrial growth. However, its unintended consequences are the economic decline of areas that previously thrived on a foundation of dammed water areas. Already, South Africa’s largest municipal jurisdictions, namely eThekweni, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, are grappling with severe water shortages. Meanwhile, Cape Town narrowly averted “Day Zero”, which is when taps were expected to run dry, while many areas of the Western Cape are still in the throes of a severe drought.

Instead, Turton says that water should be managed as “an infinitely renewable resource that it is.” “Science shows that water is a flux flowing in time and space, with the same volume returning to the ecosystem after it has been used,” he said.

This radical approach to managing water will also serve as catalyst for the development of dual stream reticulation economy in which water of different prices is used for various productive applications. For example, water of a lower quality, as opposed to water treated to potable standard, should be used for industrial processes. This is already done in the Durban South Wastewater Treatment Plant that supplies industrial grade water to the Sapref oil refinery and the Sappi paper mill.