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Shifting to a drought-buffered, climate-ready economy

Still in the grip of our worst drought in 30 years, water, and the lack of it, is now top of mind in South Africa. Could it be that this drought came just in time to give us the wake-up call that we are already living in a climate-changed world?
Christine Colvin
Christine Colvin

Unchartered territory

2015 was a watershed year in many ways. Globally, scientists are agreed that we are now seeing the first impacts of a changing climate that will take centuries to unravel. We are already experiencing a 1°C increase in global temperatures and sea-levels are predicted to rise by at least a metre by the end of this century. Although global leaders have committed to bring down our carbon emissions, as planet earth sailed beyond 400ppm levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, we are headed into uncharted territory.

That territory looks very dangerous for South Africa. If global temperatures rise by 2°C (the best we can hope for at the moment), that will mean a 4°C increase for South Africa. The summer of heat waves and late rain for Gauteng, could signify a new normal. Yes, we are a naturally dry country (30th driest) but increased need for domestic food production in a hotter world with more volatile weather systems could mean an ‘unnaturally’ high frequency of both droughts and floods in different areas of the country. This is going to require a new normal for water management in South Africa, and some bold and dramatic shifts in safe-guarding water resources.

Minister Gordhan’s budget speech urged South African’s to be bold in making much needed structural changes and to innovate. As a country, we need to build more resilience into the vast sector that supplies us with water and as such, four bold moves are needed in this coming year. These are first steps, but these changes can shift us on to a more sustainable trajectory for a drought-buffered, climate-ready economy.

Living infrastructure – beyond cement and steel

The first most fundamental step is a change in the way we view infrastructure. More than R700bn is thought to be needed to upgrade and extend our built water infrastructure to meet our future needs. This hefty bill does not include investment into catchments and the living landscapes that feed our dams.

Worldwide investment into catchments has grown and Africa has generally lagged behind. However, if we are to prevent downstream investments being left high and dry or drowned, we can’t overlook the ecological foundation. Green infrastructure or ecological infrastructure is the pre-requisite of all other infrastructural investment, from dams to schools and power stations.

In South Africa, only 8% of our land area produces 50% of our river flows. These high rainfall, mountainous water source areas are the backbone of our ecological infrastructure. WWF and the CSIR has mapped these water source areas and the Department of Environmental Affairs is proposing a 19th SIP to prioritise their restoration and develop new green economy job opportunities. The multiplier effects of employment, climate-proofing and water returns are compelling for this approach to be adopted by cabinet.

Competent institutions needed

Secondly, new core water institutions need to work well. The drought has taught us that in most parts of the country local government does not have the capacity to cope. Tankered or bottled water is a short-term emergency measure, which has not always delivered adequate supplies. Long-term planning is needed to include better buffered supplies such as groundwater. The Water Research Commission has supported pilots for managed groundwater recharge, water–sensitive urban design, re-use of sewage and mine waste-water. Technologies are proven and available. We now need competent institutions, such as the new Catchment Management Agencies, to be introduced this year, to lead the bold implementation of business unusual.

Rethinking water pricing

Water is a human right, we have a constitutional right to enough water to be able to meet our basic human needs (25L/ person/ day). However, as we use water beyond our basic needs and as an input to industrial and agricultural production, we need to pay, and the unpopular truth is we need to pay more. This third bold step is being led by the Department of Water and Sanitation and consultation has already begun with key stakeholders on how the price of water can more equitably reflect its value. We have a legacy of a highly subsidised commercial agricultural sector paying too little for water, and prices for bulk water vary over orders of magnitude across the country. Higher prices should drive more responsible and efficient use by water consumers. But our water challenges cannot be met by efficiency alone.

A call for collective action

The fourth shift is to make water everybody’s business and enable collective action on the big water issues. South Africa has some globally recognised water champions in the private sector – companies who have driven huge improvements in their operations and then progressed to ‘water stewardship’ – working with others to tackle the big issues that are too overwhelming for companies or individuals alone. Private sector action on shared resources triggers valid fears of resource-capture and imbalanced partnerships with poor communities. Defining the principles and modus operandi for water stewardship is a critical step to ensure we have fair rules of engagement for shared water resources.

The water sector has led the charge and has committed to these actions. They now need the highest levels of political and financial support. The drought has heightened our shared understanding of the risks to water security in the new normal of a changed climate world. And if we don’t act boldly now, we may neglect our most important responsibility, summarised by Ban-Ki Moon: "We are the first generation that can eliminate poverty, and the last that can put an end to climate change."

About Christine Colvin

Christine Colvin is the Freshwater senior manager at WWF-SA.

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