South Africa has never shied away from designing innovative solutions required through dire circumstance. Our history is punctuated with social and economic milestones, yet a massive malevolent prospect looms in the not too distant future.

Exploding growth in the world’s population and increased agricultural and industrial production are putting strain on existing water supplies across the globe. When compounded with the potential effects of climate change, the stakes and risks are raised even higher. The largest complication to this equation is the fact that that there is no singular water crisis: different countries, even in the same region, face very different problems.

India, for instance, faces demand fuelled largely by the agricultural sector as a growing population increasingly moves towards a middle-class diet that relies more heavily on wheat and sugar. China, by contrast, has a large agricultural sector coupled with a fast-growing economy that is driving rapid industrial growth and domestic urbanisation.

The South African minister of water and environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, stated in the last week of February this year that the country is will be facing a “near crisis situation” with regards to water supply within the next decade if urgent steps are not taken.

Molewa was speaking at a media briefing in Cape Town that outlined government’s plans to spend billions on infrastructure – including water infrastructure – across the country. Water experts have warned that an ever-increasing demand for water is going to place severe strain on this finite source.

The 2012 budget review recently presented by finance minister Pravin Gordhan stated that South Africa will start running out of water 13 years from now if it is not better managed. The document goes onto state that according to current projections, South Africa’s demand for water will overpower the supply mechanisms between 2025 and 2030.
With this in mind, Molewa has indicated that appropriate action is needed sooner rather than later.
A total of amount of R75 billion has been allocated for water infrastructure over the next three years; this includes quality management, resource planning and support to local governments. The Department of Water Affairs has highlighted projects and initiatives as priority, such as the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (set to supply an additional 151 m3 of water to the Vaal River system by 2020). The department is also investigating the development of ground water resources and coastal desalination plants, although the water supplied by the latter would be expensive. Despite this, both eThekwini and the City of Cape Town are considering this to be an option for water supply in the foreseeable future.

Another option being considered by the department is a “realignment” of water prices and it has drawn up a draft tariff review programme.

Molewa explained that each year, water boards applied for and set their own tariffs for the various agricultural and industrial users.

“This inequality is what we want to address at the moment,” she pointed out.

“Every year there is this approach and we do not agree with this practice. By the end of 2012 we will have our new programme in place.”

In a effort to avoid the upheaval surrounding the Gauteng Open Road Tolling, Molewa gave her assurance that the public would be invited to give input to the programme, which is set to affect the price they will pay for water, before it was presented to cabinet for approval.

In highlighting some of the shortcomings of the country’s current water supply infrastructure, Molewa highlighted that about 41% of water being supplied is lost due to pipeline leakages in water supply systems before end-users even open a tap. In addition, she stressed that significant behavioural changes are needed in the way South Africans use and consume water.

The department is overseeing operations at 151 water and wastewater projects. These include the Olifants River Water Resources Development Project in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, which includes the R3.1 billion De Hoop Dam and bulk raw water distribution systems – expected to cost R13 billion – and a R3 billion dam safety rehabilitation project for the department’s 315 existing dams.