ISS Today: South Africa can balance its water system, but the clock is ticking
From more aggressively tiered pricing to building water infrastructure, South Africa can’t afford more delays. By Zach Donnenfeld for ISS TODAY.
First published by ISS Today
South Africa’s water system hangs in the balance, as residents of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay know all too well. But around the world cities, regions and countries have faced similar struggles and managed to restore balance to their water systems over time. So while South Africa’s crisis is serious, there are examples to draw from on how to fix it.
A recent ISS report laid out the scale of the problem in South
At a basic
There are a few reasons for this intensive use of water at the national level. For one, South Africa treats less than 60% of its wastewater. Another is that more than 40% of municipal water in South Africa is non-revenue – ie lost before it reaches the consumer, mainly through damaged infrastructure. Finally, per
By reducing overall consumption, investing in infrastructure and treating more of its wastewater, South Africa can restore stability to its water sector. However, any further delays in the construction of planned water infrastructure will make the problem more difficult and more expensive to address.
A path to water security has been identified using a forecast of national-level water supply and demand in South Africa. The report uses the International Futures forecasting system housed at the Frederick S Pardee Centre for International Futures at the University of Denver.
The analysis culminated in the Closing the Gap scenario (see table below). This scenario includes both demand and
In the Closing the Gap scenario, South Africa can again have a surplus of renewable water by around 2030. However, this scenario depends on the Department of Water and Sanitation implementing all of the planned reconciliation strategies on time and to specification.
Water demand (solid line) and supply (dashed lines)
So, is the Closing the Gap scenario plausible for South Africa? It will take a substantial financial investment, a commitment to effectively maintain and manage existing infrastructure, and a willingness to make tough decisions. But there are examples from around the world that indicate these targets may be within reach.
There are similar lessons to be drawn in the area of non-revenue water. Australia has limited non-revenue water to roughly 10% of municipal demand, compared to 41% in South Africa. If South Africa were to match that effort, it could reduce demand by well over 1 km3.
In the United States, tiered water pricing has discouraged high levels of consumption in many parts of the country. The city of Tucson in Arizona has reduced per capita consumption to the extent that today, total water consumption is roughly the same as it was in the 1980s, despite the population growing by more than 25% since then.
A tiered pricing structure could be an effective tool to sustainably reduce
Tiered pricing in South Africa is a delicate issue though. If South Africa does pursue tiered pricing, it must exercise extreme caution not to impede access for the nearly three million residents that do not currently have reliable access to a source of clean water.
There are a number of strategies that could bring stability to South Africa’s water system. The real question is what basket of incentives, deterrents and penalties policymakers choose to embrace.
Unfortunately, this naturally complex phenomenon is further complicated by a lack of reliable and publicly available information. The Department of Water and Sanitation used to publish an annual Blue Drop
Whatever the ultimate strategy for restoring stability to South Africa’s water system, demand management will be an important, and probably unpopular, component.
It is important for
Zach Donnenfeld is a senior researcher, African Futures and Innovations Programme, ISS Pretoria
Photo: Communal taps in Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay, Cape Town. 13 March 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan.