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The centrality of the water-energy-food nexus in navigating South Africa’s power crisis


Dr Nqobile Xaba is Researcher: Knowledge Economy and Scientific Advancement at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).

If South Africa is to avert water scarcity and food shortages, it must urgently adopt an integrated approach to water, energy and food systems.

Water, energy and food (agriculture) are fundamental requirements for a thriving economy, and these systems are interlinked. We see evidence of this in the disruptions to South Africa’s water supply that have already occurred. These water shortages are largely due to the power cuts that result from our country’s energy crisis, and they will inadvertently negatively affect the agricultural sector.

It is important therefore to evaluate what can be done now to prevent further breakdowns in the water, energy and food interface in the future, particularly in light of South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

The first and most evident solution is to resolve the energy crisis. However, load shedding is worse than when it first began 14 years ago. Therefore, other solutions need to be explored while measures are being taken to restore reliable power supply.

In his 2023 State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa re-emphasised the country’s energy plan and progress towards resolving the energy crisis. Despite many critiques, it remains possible that this plan will result in reduced power cuts over time once fully implemented.

Second, South Africa should aim for an integrated water, energy and agriculture policy as the country makes plans for the energy sector. Policy actions in one of these areas impact on the other two sectors since these three are inextricably linked: water is a requirement for energy production; energy is needed during water processing and distribution; energy is essential to access water resources through pumping; water is used for irrigation of crops and drinking for livestock.

The management of energy in isolation, without adequate planning for the water and the agricultural sectors, will exacerbate the socioeconomic challenges associated with their scarcity, such as the spread of diseases and poverty. 

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Ramaphosa further outlined a plan to ensure water security by investing in major infrastructure across the country, including increasing the capacity of existing dams and building new ones. South Africa is a water-scarce country with uneven rainfall distribution, and evaporation rates that exceed precipitation due to an extreme climate.

Further, apartheid-era inequalities between urban and rural water infrastructure persist. Investment in water infrastructure remains key to averting water scarcity across the country.

Some of the water projects announced by the President have been in the pipeline for years with delays (phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project), and some were proposed many years ago and are now scheduled to start in the next financial year (Umzimvubu Water Project). If these projects are to succeed, then South Africa needs to ensure that timelines for delivering them are closely monitored.

A close eye on interdependencies

It is critical, now more than ever, to ensure that these water development projects are simultaneously accompanied by projects for sustainable and clean energy. This would prevent future water supply disruptions due to power cuts, and also contribute towards reducing fossil fuel use for energy.

Planning and management of these resources will even be more important as South Africa navigates the transition to a low-carbon economy. Policy to reduce carbon emissions, such as green hydrogen production and carbon capture and use, may result in increased water use, while the production of biofuels can result in increased pressure on water and food resources. Therefore, these interdependencies will need to be carefully managed to avoid any further shortages of either resource.

Mistra’s working paper on the energy and water nexus, from the publication Earth Wind and Fire, provides a basis for an integrated approach for the green economy in South Africa, and explicitly clarifies that “energy is a water issue and water is an energy issue” and by extension, a food supply issue.  

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Third, South Africa needs collaborative solutions and overall better coordination between the energy, water and agricultural sectors. South Africa’s energy plan should consider the potential risks of water scarcity for the generation capacity required.

Further, the electricity sector must have a plan of how to sustain itself, and to be able to provide reliable and stable energy in the event of a water scarcity.  

Policy planning in isolation for the energy, water or agriculture sector risks creating unplanned demand on the other sectors which would have broader economic and social implications. Policies for energy and water need to account for the interdependencies of the two sectors as well as their impact on the different sectors of the economy. Further, energy planning in South Africa needs to aim for more efficient energy sources that can sustainably meet future water needs.

Read in Daily Maverick:New agency to fund, fix and expand South Africa’s vital water infrastructure

South Africa needs to invest in the development, refurbishment and maintenance of water infrastructure to ensure that power disruptions do not affect water supply. It also needs to improve water and energy efficiency by adopting smart technologies to reduce water losses and improve infrastructure maintenance.

Water remains a scarce resource globally and therefore measures should be taken to ensure that future energy systems do not impact on the availability and supply of water.

South Africa now needs to consider the energy, water and agriculture nexus in all its policies and planning. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    It is not true that “water is a requirement for energy production”. This is the case for coal in a big way as de Ruyter pointed out in the interview. It is also true for nuclear, but it is not true for wind, and little water is only needed to wash PV panels. PV mounted on dams actually limits evaporation and saves water. This needs to be considered when looking at the energy mix as well as using agrivoltaics where PV and farming are combined.

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