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Water is an essential natural resource. However, experts have estimated that the world will run out of fresh water entirely by 2040, giving us just under 16 years of fresh water unless we make drastic and immediate changes to how we use and preserve our water. Human activity is largely behind this rapid depletion, with the mismanagement of ground water being a top contributor. While ground water is crucial for farming, providing 43% of water used for irrigation, advancements in drilling technologies have enabled unsustainable extraction practices. Overconsumption and growing demand due to overpopulation are also major contributing factors to the growing scarcity of water resources. Climate change is also playing a role. Between 2000 and 2022 the number and duration of droughts have increased by 29% globally. As a result, more than 2.3 billion people faced water scarcity in 2022.

Reports indicate that one in three people in Africa are affected by water shortages, with an intersection between the lack of basic drinking water, access to basic sanitation and basic hygiene. The effects of climate change on the continent exacerbate the challenge of water availability, impacting food and energy security to the continent’s growing population.

Africa is disproportionately affected by these changes, accounting for 44% of the global total of events in the past 100 years. More recently, sub-Saharan Africa has seen an even greater increase in the intensity and duration of drought. In an already water scarce country like South Africa, we do not need to look far to find examples of the impact of climate change.

South Africa is reported to be a water scare country with an average rainfall of 465mm and a high evaporation rate. The availability of untreated water could deteriorate further due to high demand as the economy and population grows. Whilst most households in South Africa have access to piped water inside or outside their homes, South Africa’s water scarcity is not just attributable to physical drivers such as inadequate natural water resources, but also to economic factors such as lack of investment in water management or lack of human capacity to satisfy water demand where water is naturally available.

In recent years, we are seeing reports not just of rising water shortages linked to the power crisis or climate change, but also of water contamination by sewage and bacteria in parts of the country, leading to waterborne diseases as a result of lack of general monitoring and infrastructure maintenance.

Between 2015 and 2018 Cape Town experienced a one-in-400 year drought, bringing the city to the brink of day-zero and making it the first modern city to effectively run out of drinking water. More recently, Johannesburg has been the victim of poor resource management with residents being without water for as long as 11 days. While unusually low rainfall has played a role in this issue, collapsing infrastructure and poor resource management are also to blame for water storage levels plummeting to below 30%.

Another major city in South Africa, Durban, faced similar outcomes caused by severe and frequent weather events. Like droughts, the frequency of floods has also increased. Research has shown that flooding events across KwaZulu Natal have doubled in the last century, culminating in the 2022 event which has been cited as the most catastrophic yet. Like drought, this event resulted in water outages, preventing South African’s from accessing clean drinking water.

One of the lesser-known consequences of climate change is the growth in prevalence and spread of bacterial, viral, parasitic, fungal, and vector borne diseases. This is partly due to contaminants entering the water system during events like floods, but also largely a result of rising temperatures

Each of these issues alone is enough to raise concern. But, bundled together the situation demands immediate attention and intervention. This issue is also amplified when we look beyond the city walls where 19% of rural South African’s do not have access to reliable water supply, and 33% do not have access to basic sanitation. In these communities, an outbreak of any water borne disease would be catastrophic.

With such a wide array of potential outcomes, where do we start in addressing an issue of this scale?

As with many other modern problems, technology is playing a leading role in finding a resolution. In terms of water management, implementing smart metering systems will play a critical role in helping municipalities monitor consumption, improve the identification of leaks, and address the issue of non-revenue water which increased to 47% in 2023. The cumulative effect of this will hopefully be better resource management and sufficient funds to address infrastructure problems.

In terms of managing the spread of disease, there are technological solutions emerging which will help with early detection and geolocation of water-borne diseases. One such platform is the eLabs platform developed by Vodacom subsidiary, Mezzanine in conjunction with WITS University. Although still in the conceptual phase, the platform has been used at scale in South Africa and Zambia and piloted in Mozambique for use in the medical field. Its ability to register, geolocate, track, trace, and communicate patient test results could be key to predicting water borne pathogen events and prescribing actions ahead of events.

While these solutions have the potential to help in resolving the tangled nexus which we face, it is also up to each of us to change our consumption habits. This does not only mean small changes like turning off the tap when brushing your teeth or recycling grey water, it also means choosing to support farmers and manufacturers who use water responsibly. It is only through our collective efforts that we can really make an impact and ensure the future of our planet is secured. DM

Author: Takalani Netshitenzhe, Director of External Affairs for Vodacom South Africa



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