Everyone needs to play a part in solving SA’s water crisis

South Africa’s worsening water crisis calls for everyone to get involved to solve the problem. Picture: Supplied

South Africa’s worsening water crisis calls for everyone to get involved to solve the problem. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 19, 2024


South Africa is one of the driest countries on the planet, with an average of just 464mm of rain annually in comparison to the global average of 786mm.

The climate catastrophe is only exacerbating water scarcity, according to Lauren Gillis, the founder of The Relate Trust.

Within the last six years, two major South African cities have come close to “Day Zero” scenarios where the taps would have run completely dry. For some smaller towns and villages, Day Zero is already a reality.

For example, over 140,000 households around QwaQwa in the Free State have had dry taps for many months, with others only having occasional access to water.

Low dam levels, ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, load shedding, sabotage and vandalism has resulted in poor water access.

According to Gillis, those issues are not restricted to rural towns and villages either. Johannesburg, which is the centre of SA’s economic heartland is also experiencing its own water crisis.

“Thanks to a lack of maintenance and infrastructure investment, it’s experienced several major outages over the past few years. The most recent one left millions of residents without water for days at a time,” Gillis said.

Those infrastructural issues will only worsen the impacts of climate change, and for South Africa, those impacts will be significant.

According to ESI Africa, South Africa is expected to officially become a water-scarce country by 2025 and will have a water deficit of 17% by 2030. Increased temperatures will also increase demand for crop irrigation, further straining the country’s water resources.

Not just about dry taps

Despite the considerable gains made since the advent of democracy, 19% of rural South Africans lack access to a reliable supply of water.

“For most of us, clean, fresh, running water is a few steps away. But for women in rural South Africa, getting water is a long, and often dangerous walk every single day,” Gillis said.

Gillis said that women in villages walk around 6 km to collect water from open sources for their families each day and the water is often contaminated.

The lack of access to clean water results in many difficulties, including issues with health, education, gender equity, and economic development.

The lack of safe water and poverty are mutually reinforcing, while access to consistent sources of clean water is crucial to poverty reduction.

Conversely, states the World Health Organization (WHO), having safe drinking-water, sanitation, and hygiene helps to create resilient communities living in healthy environments.

Access to safe water gives women, children and families more time to pursue education and work opportunities that will help them break the cycle of poverty.

While local, provincial, and national arms of government are taking measures to address both scarcity and availability, more needs to be done.

Gillis adds that fixing these issues cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the government.

Playing our part

“Businesses and other organisations, as well as individuals, also have a role to play. The most obvious way of doing so is to implement waterwise technologies and behaviours, but we can also make a significant difference in other ways,” Gillis said.

People should look at the measures taken by many businesses in Cape Town during the worst of its drought, including low-flow taps and grey-water systems to see how rapidly water usage can be improved.

Many Cape Town homes also have rainwater tanks which can be used to fill swimming pools and water gardens.

As a result of water-saving initiatives, the city went from using 1.2 billion litres of water a day to 516 million litres a day by 2018. While the number had risen back up to 807 million litres a day by 2023, it still demonstrates what’s possible through a sustained collective effort.

Running and walking for water

For Gillis and Relate, another way of making a difference is through a walk/run event which aims to build a sustainable solar water system that will bring clean, running water to 4,000 people.

The event forms part of Relate Water, which is a subsidiary of The Relate Trust. With each entrant’s registration of R300 to the virtual walk/run event, safe, clean, running water is bought for one person for the rest of their life.

To do this, Relate Water has partnered with the South African arm of Innovation Africa who builds sustainable solar-powered water systems that pump clean water into taps throughout the villages.

In their projects, the community is involved in every step of the process and 10 people in each village are upskilled, which makes them employable. They will also manage any future maintenance problems.

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