Op-Ed

How we can tap into a water-secure future

By Dhesigen Naidoo 11 July 2019

Illustrative image: Luemen Carlson/Unsplash

Water-sensitive design combined with game-changing technology will set us on the path toward a low carbon economy and a sustainable development future.

At the heart of South Africa’s water woes lies our continued inability to utilise the water we already have innovatively, effectively and efficiently. This is not discounting the vagaries of climate change and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The extended El Niño cycles have had an accumulative effect – especially in our ability to recover between dry spells.

These are the new boundary conditions for our water planning, and perhaps this is where we have been wanting. The conditions should be informing not only water planning but overall development and economic planning.

The promise in the new Cabinet portfolio in the form of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation under the stewardship of minister Lindiwe Sisulu may hold the key. The reconceptualisation of human settlements from single developments like the appropriately lauded Cornubia, north of Durban and Cosmo City in Gauteng to city- and region-wide planning represents the theatre of change.

We need to bring to bear the considerable repository of new water knowledge and water and sanitation innovations into creating new developments on the basis of water-sensitive design (WSD). It is an area of strength for the productive South African Water Science and Technology community of practice, steered and supported by the Water Research Commission, which is rated by the International Scientific Indexing (ISI) as being in the top 20 globally.

WSD, combined with game-changing technology, will ensure a water-secure future for South Africa and set us on the path toward a low carbon economy and a sustainable development future.

We need to use research and innovation to design sustainable human settlements, and enhancing water access and resource (water and financial) efficiency. Other interventions are new sanitation, innovations in water quality and environmentally-sensitive water development, a diversification of water supply options, smart beneficiation-oriented and decentralised (localised) wastewater treatment, and innovative WSD embracing the water-energy-food nexus and fully implementing a Fourth Industrial Revolution approach to water and sanitation management.

Taking advantage of our Water Science and Technology asset will not only significantly enhance our water security, it will also result in increased energy and nutritional security with concomitant improved health security. In addition, and if the correct investments are made, we can industrialise our water and sanitation innovations and produce for a global market as envisaged in the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP). This significantly changes the risk profile of water financing and investment as more private sector participation is enabled.

There is a significant convergence in all global analyses that from an economic, social, environmental, political and security viewpoint, the increase of water scarcity on the back of decreased availability as well as deteriorating water quality is a global crisis. The promise of these solutions to mitigate and eventually solve the local and global water crises has far-reaching implications.

If we don’t accelerate the adoption of these new solutions, we have the unwelcome prospect of living out the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2019 Global Risk Perception Survey’s connectivity analysis. It reminds us that water has been consistently in the top five global risks in terms of impact from 2012 to 2019, having been the No 1 risk in 2015.

The water crisis risk is connected to natural disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse and our collective climate change inaction, and is a critical factor in the failure of global and regional governance, interstate conflict, the fiscal crisis and unemployment, says the WEF survey.

The possibilities are compelling. We stand at a turning point for the South African development narrative – one that has the opportunity to simultaneously improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor while creating fertile ground for industrialisation and entrepreneur development in South Africa, Africa and the developing world.

It will announce a step change in water management for the 21st Century. DM

Dhesigen Naidoo is chief executive at the Water Research Commission.

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