Scarce water requires change in value proposition to stop waste

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No one can live without water. However, judging by how many South Africans waste it, one would think we have an unlimited supply.

What many of us may not realise is that there’s not enough water to go around. And the little water we do have is often too dirty for human consumption. It’s a gloomy picture, but true.

Let us not beat around the bush: South Africa has major challenges when it comes to the amount of water it has and the management of this critical resource.

A lack of expertise at all levels and the concomitant lack of the necessary infrastructure, especially in informal settlements, have left thousands of people without access to clean drinking water and sanitation.

Cities in Gauteng are threatened by acid mine drainage, while water shortages in rural areas are leaving people without water for days on end. Rivers are being polluted and municipal water treatment systems are failing.

Furthermore, millions of people are flushing their toilets with potable water. Major irresponsible use of water by all, including the private sector, industry (for example, mining acid mine drainage) and individuals, is plunging us deeper and deeper into trouble.

Meanwhile, accusations are flying between individuals and state officials.

The individual is blaming the government for poor services related to water supply and the state must simultaneously take the blame for the problems of acid mine drainage, which have been caused by the mining industry. Ordinary taxpayers now have to foot the bill for the treatment of this water. All this confirms my opinion that water, our most essential and valuable resource, is disregarded and abused.

In my view, the problem lies with the fact that, although water is seen as a human right, nobody owns it. This negates the responsibility that is supposed to go with securing this natural resource.

How do you make people understand their responsibility? By changing the value proposition, so that while water becomes everybody’s right, it must also be valued and used responsibly by everyone. This will require a drastically different way in which we manage water.

One possibility is to supply a minimum amount of water free for human consumption (food, cooking and drinking) as is already the case, but to apply a more realistic “price” to it to increase its value to curb wastage.

Industries should in the same way receive incentives for water “saving” in order to ensure the economy is not negatively influenced by the high price of water.

Of course, there are many ways in which the value proposition could be changed. One would be to look at new innovative technology to make the re-use of polluted water fit for human consumption possible on a major scale.

The fact of the matter is that we do not have water to waste, and if we do not change our behaviour, we will all be victims of “load shedding”, as was the case years ago when people took turns to get water.

* Professor Eugene Cloete is the vice-rector for research and innovation at the University of Stellenbosch, and chairman of the advisory board of the university’s water institute.


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