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South Africa cannot afford a water crisis — too much is at stake

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Janse Rabie is the Head of the Centre of Excellence on Natural Resources, and Legal and Policy Executive at Agri SA.

The health implications of untreated water contaminating key rivers and waterways are potentially fatal. Unless we address the looming pollution crisis with urgency, waterborne diseases could soon plague the country.

The rolling blackouts crisis looms large over the lives of South Africans. From the economy and jobs to safety and the cost of living, virtually no part of life in South Africa has been left untouched. Agri SA has also contributed to this discussion, raising the potentially catastrophic implications of rolling blackouts for the country’s food security.

But while all eyes have been on rolling blackouts, another threat is growing: the threat to water safety in South Africa. This challenge is inextricably linked to rolling blackouts, but is also a consequence of systemic local government failures.

And this highly consequential matter must be a priority for the ministers of Electricity and of Water and Sanitation, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa and Senzo Mchunu, respectively.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa to push for extending life of ageing coal-fired power station

At the core of the problem is the fact that sewage treatment plants need electricity, a resource in short supply. Energy is required to pump water as well as to power both aerobic and anaerobic processes in water treatment. Rolling blackouts, unfortunately, entail the intermittent supply of power. But the systems relied on for water treatment are degraded by this intermittency of power, and they are exceptionally difficult to reboot once they fail.

This failure is rendered even more alarming by a second factor in the past, namely, that sewage treatment plant regulations mandated the return of treated water to rivers. For this reason, it made sense to position these plants close to rivers and waterways.

But the downside of this position is that when treatment processes fail, the untreated water is likely to flow directly into vital water resources. Rolling blackouts — worsened by government inaction — have brought about precisely such failures in parts of the country.

The health implications of untreated water contaminating key rivers and waterways are potentially fatal. Indeed, South Africa has already registered a number of cholera deaths. Unless we address the looming pollution crisis with urgency, waterborne diseases could soon plague the country.

In addition to health, there are food security and economic implications too. The mere possibility of water contaminating crops raises the risk of our produce being rejected by export markets unwilling to expose their own populations to any risk.

Given the importance of South Africa’s agricultural exports for the balance of trade as well as employment, it is difficult to overstate the importance of preventing the contamination of food.

Last year, South Africa already saw a ban on certain fruit exports to neighbouring countries and a ban on South African wool exports to China (both for reasons not related to water contamination), while South African citrus farmers continue to battle European Union arbitrary trade regulations. South Africa simply cannot allow any further threats to our access to key export markets.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA wool farmers fear the worst if China ban continues

To alleviate the crisis, urgent action is needed. A State of Disaster has already been declared (and since lifted) to address the energy crisis. Under the regulations published in February 2023, “water infrastructure including water treatment plants” is recognised as essential infrastructure, giving the relevant Cabinet member the power to exempt water infrastructure from rolling blackouts.

Even with the State of Disaster having been lifted, this has to be given effect immediately.

More complex is the question of how to address the failures of local government. For one thing, the State of Disaster regulations provided for the relevant Cabinet minister to issue directives that require municipalities to take steps to ensure the security of the water supply.

Given the magnitude of local governments’ demonstrated incapacity, guidelines need to be issued that spell out precisely what is required of municipalities. In some cases, this may mean a directive requiring cooperation with the private sector because we know they, at least, are making real inroads on this critical issue.

In the Northern Cape, for example, the private sector has taken the lead to try and protect that province’s water resources. Gariep Watch, an agricultural watchdog body supported by Agri SA and its affiliated members Agri Northern Cape, Raisins SA, Orange River Producers Association and Karsten Boerdery, conducts quarterly water quality surveys demonstrating the consequences of the systemic lack of resources for the proper management of the nation’s water systems.

Indeed, Gariep Watch has had to resort to filing criminal charges over the pollution of local water resources with untreated sewage.

While the private sector has shown itself to be highly motivated — and effective — it is nevertheless unfair to expect them to pick up the tab for all the necessary interventions.

Which brings us to the third required intervention. In addition to rolling blackout exemptions and directives aimed at improving local government performance, we need additional resources allocated to tackling this problem.

Municipalities need sufficient resources to invest in mitigation strategies in the form of generators and solar panels in the event of rolling blackouts escalating. Sixteen years after rolling blackouts were first implemented in 2007, there is no excuse for the continued failure to implement a mitigation strategy for this most vital of municipal functions.

But there are also problems that extend beyond rolling blackouts, notably the chronic shortage of personnel to fulfil these functions. Under the best of circumstances this shortage is a problem; exacerbated by rolling blackouts, the problem is potentially catastrophic. Therefore, National Treasury and the Department of Water and Sanitation must play an active part in crafting solutions and allocating resources for these functions to be performed properly.

The stakes could not be higher — water sustains both our bodies and our food supply. Our health, our food security, and our agricultural exports depend on the confidence of South Africans and food importers’ confidence in the quality of our water and therefore quality of our food. We can only hope the members of South Africa’s Cabinet are up to this most important — and urgent — responsibility. DM

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