By Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem
It’s not entirely true that South Africa is one of the driest countries in the world. We only rank 39th in terms of lowest rainfall and, in terms of water stress, we sit pretty much in the middle at 65th out of 180 countries.
I mention these statistics so that we don’t go down an alarmist route. But don’t be fooled: water is an enormous challenge for South Africa. Global rankings don’t reflect the nuances on the ground, such as that the average rainfall varies dramatically between different local regions. Examples of droughts causing havoc in the country are scattered all across South Africa’s history.
Even our geography is suggestive of our localised water challenges. The recent drought in the Western Cape nearly brought an international city to its knees. Right now, the Northern and Eastern Cape regions are experiencing incredible droughts, so much so that trees are falling over.
But even Johannesburg, the commercial crown jewel, has to pump water from Lesotho into the Vaal catchment dams. The local area doesn’t produce enough water to quench Egoli’s thirst. Urbanisation is adding to this: Johannesburg’s people are consuming 530-million litres more water than they are meant to.
These are not alarmist notions. They are facts, and they are becoming much more aggravated due to climate change.
I’m not going to debate whether climate change is happening or not, or what its causes may be. Anecdotally, it is clear that the planet’s weather is acting erratically and becoming very unpredictable. The climate is warming: according to SA’s National Climate Change Response whitepaper, local temperatures have risen 1.5 times more than the global average. If the world is getting hot, SA is one of the places getting even hotter.
South Africa receives enough rain on average. But that rainfall varies significantly, and SA does a poor job capturing and managing water resources. Such neglect will have severe social and political consequences. An LTAS study found that while climate change might have a limited impact on the national level, it’s a very different and stark picture at local levels.
If we don’t attack water capturing and management challenges with vigour, the country is sure to end up in a major catastrophe that could also collapse it. I’m again not being alarmist. Water conflict is a real threat. Even now, the matter brews between Ethiopia’s dams and Egypt further downstream. In Mali, there are frequent battles over water sources.
South Africa can avoid such situations by investing in proper water storage and management. We must also provide the resources and data for planners. Our leaders must be able to act when required, because the windows of opportunity to secure water are fleeting.
If you want an example of how undisciplined water management can cause serious damage, look at Chennai in India. Last year the city’s taps ran dry because the monsoon didn’t arrive on time. Nine million people had to line up at trucks to quench their needs. Chennai is in a very water-rich area, but it only took one missing rain season to throw all that into turmoil.
South Africa doesn’t have monsoons. It needs to catch and preserve all the water that it can. That starts with proper water infrastructure management. If we don’t invest in this, South Africa will run dry.
Chetan Mistry is a Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem.