According to the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct project, South Africa is one of the most water stressed countries in the world. 

Getting to grips with'why' water is becoming more scarce

“While being able to provide fresh water is a major priority for every country in the world, the reality is that supplies are becoming increasingly hard to come by in many countries and water-related risks continue to increase,” says Helen Hulett, Principal Consultant at WSP Africa, Environment & Energy. “This is particularly true for a number of countries in Africa, where ageing and poorly maintained water supply and treatment infrastructure is not sufficient to meet demand and water resources are under pressure as this demand increases due to growing populations, industry and commercial operations. On top of this, pollutants from communities, industry and agriculture are impacting the quality of the water supplied by our catchments. These very real risks to water reserves are further compounded by climate change, which is influencing precipitation patterns commonly manifesting as decreased or more variable rainfall and more intense and frequent extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.”

“In essence, like many of the hard commodities that are mined in South Africa, water too is a limited resource,” Hulett continues. “However, it is one that has a far greater propensity to impact the country’s economic growth. We therefore need to adopt a more sustainable approach to managing available water and minimise the use of this natural resource through smarter water governance and management, as well as recycling or reuse initiatives, wherever possible.”

Recycling and reusing what's in the system

The Department of Water and Sanitation launched a national Water Week awareness campaign that ran from 16-22 March under the theme; “Water has no substitute”, and experts shared their views on the direness of the county’s water stressed situation and the urgency for behaviour change.

Alan Willcocks, CEO of Interwaste, agrees that we need to minimise the use of the country’s available resources and that there needs to be a smarter way of doing this. “In an era where conserving water is ever more critical, given the shortage of fresh and drinkable water, water recycling and re-use plays a pivotal role in driving forward sustainable solutions that will enable the longevity of South Africa’s water supply. However, for South Africa to really start taking heed of the water situation, waste water becomes a critical consideration and of course, the treatment thereof, even more so. People and organisations need to start thinking about the spin-offs of proper waste water treatment and what this type of water recycling can mean for the environment.”

“As a bare minimum, treatment of waste water to the required standards - as set out by national environmental agencies - can mean that this water can be reused effectively. In fact, we have found that 100% of effluent can be recycled, if treated properly, meaning a large bank of available water, which previously may not have been considered as ‘safe’ for the environment or community,” continues Willcocks. “Furthermore, proper waste water management can result in the redistribution of this water into the environment for irrigation and dust suppression, as well as to replenish rivers and catchments in our water infrastructure networks. The technology is so advanced today that effluent can even be treated further to potable (drinking) water for areas where it is in short supply.”

The National Water Week campaign, as lead by the Department of Water and Sanitation, is aimed at creating awareness on the scarcity of this resource in the country and re-iterating the value of water to all layers of our economy and the country’s future and sustainable survival. Just as the human body needs water to survive, so too does the environment, business and industries.

WSP Africa believes that the available data on South Africa’s water reserves should be taken a step further, by using innovative and end-to-end water footprinting and measurement techniques that will provide a comprehensive and visual representation of the country’s water current and projected profile.

“Government’s challenge centres on being able to meet the demand of all water users – from the environment and people, to agriculture, business and industry. And while this is certainly no easy feat, having the much needed and detailed data on the country’s water reserves would empower Government to focus their efficiency programmes on the areas that will make a material impact,” says Hulett.

“Although we are a waste management solutions business, we are very aware that every water user – and particularly business and industry - have an important role to play in protecting our environment and with a growing population, such as ours, our business aim is to reduce pressure on all natural resources. Our job is to remain focused on delivering waste management solutions that do not add to the stress of the environment, but rather create sustainable solutions throughout the waste value chain –of which water forms a critical pillar,” concludes Willcocks.