South Africans must re-examine fundamentally how we use every drop.
This key message emerged on Tuesday at a symposium titled “The Water Crisis: Experts Focus on Solutions”. Co-hosted by the SA African Jewish Board of Deputies, the Wandile Zulu Foundation and the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre, the event took place at the Great Park Synagogue in Johannesburg. It was chaired by environmental educator Benji Shulman.
Dr Anthony Turton, professor in water management at University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, said the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng could also face Day Zero scenarios.
He said that the prevailing paradigm of water as a scarce resource requiring management – as “stock” that gets depleted – should be replaced by a new paradigm of “water abundance”, where water is regarded as being in infinitely renewable “flux”. South Africa must utilise waste water for agriculture, desalinate in mining and coastal areas, and use groundwater judiciously, replenishing it in wet years.
Turton said: “You should never let a good crisis go to waste. Ingenuity happens on the cusp of chaos.
“Policy certainty will help unlock value”, he added, noting that capital and technology were available; financial institutions were simply lacking bankable projects to invest in.
Ex-Johannesburger Dr Clive Lipchin, director of the Centre for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute in southern Israel, said cities such as São Paulo in Brazil and Brisbane in Australia were also confronting water shortages. As the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River shrunk in the mid-1990s, “Israel realised that water had to be managed as a commodity” that costs money to treat, store and reticulate. They looked to the ocean for alternatives to diminishing natural water. Today, up to 80% of Israel’s drinking water is desalinated from the Mediterranean.
“But that was not enough,” said Lipchin. “We have to value every single drop and put it to productive use.” He was astounded that Cape Town dumps human waste into the sea, when it could be treated and used for growing crops. Israel treats 90% of its sewage; 80% is used in agriculture.
“Israel is today where Cape Town and South Africa will be tomorrow. You don’t have to start from scratch,” Lipchin said. What’s needed are three key elements: governance (leadership plus appropriate policy), finance (for water as a commodity) and capacity (expertise and education). Harnessing all three requires proper, up-to-date information and data.
Dr Jeunesse Park, environmental activist and founder of Food and Trees for Africa, recently moved to Cape Town, where she feels “enormous stress and tension around water”. But, she admits, “it has also catalysed amazing energy and consciousness”.
She has reduced her water consumption to just 30 litres a day and would like to educate cleaners on sustainable, responsible water use.
Park questioned whether stockpiled drinking water in Cape Town is being stored safely by householders. “Communication has been sorely lacking”, she said, with much “fake news” and disinformation. “We are being berated like naughty children. Government is trying to scare us into conservation action.”
Simon Gear, weatherman, broadcaster and environmental scientist, said: “The arrogance of feeding drinking water into our toilets is unspeakable. It is disturbingly difficult to rejig your house to use grey water properly”, compared with off-grid electricity measures.
He has decided to be direct when communicating about bathroom habits on air. “Cape Town will give us the opportunity to talk about water in a very fundamental way.”
With the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape province run by the DA, and national government run by the ANC, politics has come into play, fuelling a blame game. As Turton said: “Government has failed, and society is kicking back.”
He said politicians at all levels had not really been interested in listening to him for years “and now they must deal with the fallout”.s
Emphasising the point that offers by Israel to assist with providing solutions were rejected, Park said: “In the past year, I have made many advances to provincial and local government in the Cape with offers of Israeli technology and offers of funding.
“I have personally been involved in these offers and they have been summarily turned down, in fact, to the point where some of the leaders in water in the Cape have stopped communicating with me completely.”
Lipchin reiterated that Israel was ready and willing to help South Africa. But, he added, quite apart from the politics, “it’s very hard to do business in South Africa, with its lack of policy certainty, bureaucratic inertia and tendering. It’s a risk to investors.”
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