SA needs to harness innovation and collaboration to avert a water crisis

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By Poovandran Pillay, Executive: Nedbank CSI

South Africa is facing the prospect of a critical water crisis that threatens the nation’s social, economic, and environmental well-being. The challenges are multifaceted, stemming from a combination of factors such as environmental degradation, climate change, infrastructure decay, financial constraints, and social and political issues. Widespread water contamination and deterioration of numerous water treatment facilities have put a significant proportion of the country’s water systems in jeopardy, and a lack of skilled and experienced personnel to properly manage these facilities is exacerbating the problem.

The extent of the problem was highlighted in the 2023 Blue Drop Report by the Department of Water and Sanitation, which revealed that:

46% of water supply systems in the country pose acute health risks due to contamination;
67,6% of wastewater treatment works are near failure; and
over 47% of treated potable water is lost through leaks or unaccounted for.

Only 26 of the country’s 958 water supply systems met the 95% criteria for Blue Drop certification for the delivery of clean, drinkable water.

To put these percentages in perspective, a 2023 statement on water security in South Africa by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) estimated that 3 million people in South Africa do not have access to potable water supply and 14 million lack safe sanitation.

Figures like this highlight the fact that South Africa’s water challenges are not just a logistical issue; they are a systemic one, with the potential to have dire public health implications, as seen in recent outbreaks of waterborne diseases, including the tragic cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal that claimed 31 lives in May 2023.

The water challenges disproportionately affect the poor and those living in rural areas and informal settlements. These communities are often forced to depend on insecure water sources like polluted rivers and streams, making them vulnerable to water-related illnesses. The challenges also trigger significant economic impacts, as water scarcity can have the knock-on effect of causing investment reluctance, further impacting local economies and job opportunities.

Friday, 22 March, is World Water Day, which serves to highlight the global water and sanitation crisis. It also puts a spotlight on the fact that addressing South Africa’s complex water challenges requires a multifaceted and highly collaborative approach. There is an urgent need for holistic responses, including the following:

Repairing and maintaining infrastructure to minimise leaks and losses.
Leveraging technology to improve water quality.
Implementing rigorous water conservation practices.
Upskilling personnel.
Raising public awareness.
Exploring alternative water sources, such as treated wastewater, desalinated water (salt has been removed) and rainwater.

The good news is that many of these collaborative and innovative responses are already becoming increasingly evident. An example of this is the Fraunhofer Innovation Platform for the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, a collaboration between Stellenbosch University and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft research organisation that focuses on developing sustainable solutions for efficient water resource management. Another example is the Strategic Water Partners Network SA, which brings together public and private sectors as well as civil society to find solutions for South Africa’s water challenges.

As a bank with a purpose to use its financial expertise to do good, Nedbank is at the forefront of several water security, access and resource management initiatives. Our long-standing partnership with the World-Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) has yielded significant results in conservation, particularly in the Eastern Cape’s key landscapes such as the uMzimvubu Catchment, the Sundays River Catchment and the Kouga River. This collaboration has catalysed further partnerships, bringing together diverse stakeholders, including NGOs, community organisations, traditional leaders, and the public sector.

Another notable water project that Nedbank supports and is delivering transformative impacts for many water-constrained communities is Kusini Water, a social enterprise that innovates by crafting water purification systems using locally obtained waste macadamia shells. Kusini Water’s unique business model facilitates the production and distribution of safe drinking water in villages, informal settlements and townships at an affordable fixed fee, ensuring communitywide access. The initiative has a strong entrepreneurial element, supporting the establishment of small businesses to supply local communities with clean, affordable drinking water while generating an income and creating employment.

In Hammanskraal, Kusini has already created 5 jobs and provided access to clean drinking water for 43 000 people through 18 water points. In Limpopo’s Khalavha Village, Kusini has created 3 employment opportunities, and now serves 3 120 people with 380 000 litres of water per month recovered from a protected spring. These meaningful outcomes exemplify the existing potential to leverage innovation and collaboration to turn the looming water crisis in South Africa into opportunities for sustainable social and economic transformation.

Of course, while targeted interventions like these are vital, fixing the country’s water challenges requires much more – starting with promoting and supporting sustainable water management practices at individual and institutional levels, as follows:

At the individual level, we must raise awareness about the need for water conservation and promote attitude and behaviour change.
At the institutional level, water management plans are non-negotiable, and so is the investment in water-efficient technologies, lobbying public sector entities, and participating in partnerships and collective efforts that could turn our water fortunes around.

The road ahead is undoubtedly challenging. But with concerted efforts from all stakeholders – government, businesses, NGOs, and communities – we can reroute our country from its current path towards a devastating water crisis, and turn its water challenges into meaningful opportunities for social upliftment and green economic growth.