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War on water waste

National Water Week, from 5 to 11 March, focuses on the need for South Africans to be more savvy about using the precious resource. LIESL PEYPER spoke to Jessica Wilson of NGO Environmental Monitoring Group about how we can all play our part Water affairs minister Edna Molewa said we’ll start to run out ofwaterin13yearsunlessweman­ age our resources better. Is this an exaggeration?

We’ve started seeing cities running low on water, mainly in times of drought or poor planning. Government’s estimation is correct, especially if we continue with “business as usual”.

Government allocated R75bn over the next three years to build new water infrastructure. Will this solve the problem?

Money will partly solve the problem but the most fundamental issue is lack of capacity in local government to implement decisions about allocating funds and appointing contractors. There are people thinking about what should be done but politicians and decision-makers don’t act on their plans. There should also be investment in maintaining existing infrastructure.

Are there alternatives to build­ ing costly water infrastructure

projects such as new dams?

Historically a new dam would be built when it became clear water was going to run out. But we have pretty much dammed where we can. Any new water supply options are more expensive than if you had a large river that flowed all year and you could simply dam it. Desalination, waste-water recycling and groundwater withdrawal are costly. We should therefore be looking at ways to decrease demand. Take electricity – blackouts are a good incentive to reduce demand.

Will scarcity result in a spike in water tariffs as we have seen happen with electricity?

That depends on how it’s handled. During the severe drought in the Southern Cape a few years ago the Environmental Monitoring Group examined the strategies municipalities used to get people to consume less water. One way is to increase tariffs. But rationing is a more effective and socially fair way of getting peo-

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ple to use less. Rather limit water usage. Most municipalities did this by placing a 15-kilolitre a month limit on each household. Those who exceeded this limit were fined or had their water restricted.

Molewa said 41% of water in SA goes to waste before it reaches the users. What is causing this?

The figure is probably an underestimation and relates to water the municipality can’t account for. A lot of leakage takes place between the household water metre and the tap. To check turn off your taps, wait to make sure your cistern and geyser are full then check if the water meter still turns. If it is, there’s a leak. Or place a piece of toilet paper behind your toilet to see if it gets wet. If it does there are leaks.

What effect does climate change have on SA’s water resources?

This is hard to pin down but it looks as if the western parts of the country will get drier and rainfall in the east will increase. Winter rainfall areas are likely to be most affected – rainfall will decrease and it will be less predictable. The Southern Cape, a transitional zone between winter and summer rainfall, has seen a change in the intensity of its drought and flood cycle. A year’s average rainfall might fall in two days.

Residents of Stinkwater, north of Pretoria, queue for drinking water. The community has limited access to fresh water .

Working for water

JESSICA Wilson manages the Environmental Monitoring Group’s water and climate change programme. She has written about envi­ ronmental injustice and the relationship between people and the environment. Jessica holds degrees in chemistry, environmental policy and creative writing. She edited the book Water and Climate Change: An Exploration for the Con­ cerned and Curious.

Even if the average rainfall a year in the region remains stable, its falling pattern changed and this has huge implications for farmers. Rising temperatures also increase the evaporation rate. Even if we receive the same amount of rain we’ll need even more because of the amount of water evaporating from our dams.

Government intends to draw up legislation to “reserve” water for industries pivotal to economic growth plans. Is this a good idea?

Municipalities in the Southern Cape were challenged to drop their water consumption by 40% because of the drought and most of them achieved it. However the biggest water user in Mossel Bay was PetroSA, which used the same amount of water as the entire municipality. The company helped to build part of the Wolwedans Dam and receives cheap water as a result. PetroSA is guaranteed half of the water the dam contains unless the level drops below 10%. During the dry period, as far as we could find out, PetroSA didn’t reduce its water usage by even a litre. This highlights what guaranteeing an amount of water [to specific industries] really means. This is particularly problematic when it comes to climate change and the increased variability of water as a resource.


The interview

War on water waste  

We spoke to enivornmentalist Jessica Wilson about saving water and the planet.