Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

Q&A: ‘Development Must Adapt to Water Resources We Have’

Kristin Palitza interviews VICTOR MUNNIK, senior policy specialist at Mvula Trust

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 3 2009 (IPS) - Environmental experts warn that one of the first effects of climate change will be scarcity of water, especially throughout the African continent. Already depleted water resources will become even more scarce.

Victor Munnik Credit:

Victor Munnik Credit:

As a result, countries like South Africa will have to rely more and more on recycling used and polluted water for our consumption. Some water experts believe a crisis is looming.

IPS: What threatens South Africa’s water security, in terms of water quality as well as quantity? Victor Munnik: In South Africa, 98 percent of our water supply is subscribed, which means that we basically have no unused water resources left. Any new demands will have to be met by efficient use and come from return flows. That’s why water quality and quantity are tightly linked. Return flows need to be of a high enough quality so that the water can be reused.

Water security is an important issue, especially when water is used in the industrial and mining sectors, where pollution is difficult to clean up. To give you an example, two thirds of the country’s sewerage systems are dysfunctional, according to the Water Research Commission.

The urgency here is that we have no unused water resources left. As a result, inefficient use, waste and injury to the quality of water are great threats. We are in a dire situation.

IPS: Environmental experts warn of a looming water crisis in SA. What is it caused by and what should be done to prevent it? VM: There are a number of dangers, but one of the biggest is pollution caused by the mining sector – acid mine drainage that lowers pH-levels in the water and poses health risks to humans and animals.

We need to beef up our water quality system. South Africa has fairly well-developed water policy, but the challenge is its implementation. We need, for instance, more water quality inspectors and involve the public in monitoring of water quality. Most of all, we need a determined effort.

IPS: Should water be regarded as a commercial or rather as a social good? VM: Water should be regarded as a public good, although water services can be commercial. The law stipulates that water cannot be owned, like air cannot be owned. It’s for public use. You use it and give it back; it moves in a cycle.

Access to water is a basic human right, although it is important to note that the commercialisation of water makes it more difficult to keep it that way.

IPS: Why does water continue to be priced beyond the reach of poor households? VM: Municipalities are in a position where they have to do cost recovery for water services rendered to people who really cannot afford it, and this clashes with the human rights issue of access to water. A solution is possible within the stepped block tariff (an escalating payment structure), if the first blocks are kept free of charge or very cheap.

At the moment, households receive six kilolitres of free water per month, but this is not an adequate amount, especially if these households have flush toilets, which use a lot of water.

IPS: How does the commercialisation of water, whether through privatisation or corporatisation, relate to people’s right to water? VM: Commercialisation of water shouldn’t be used as an excuse for reducing people’s access to water. Even though water is privatised or corporatised, municipalities, in their role as water services authorities, are obliged to achieve social goals and have to police them.

Commercialisation does not nullify the water policies we have. We have to be cautious because those who want to commercialise water often make promises they don’t keep, such as infrastructure upgrades or provision of water to the poor.

IPS: The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned that SA will become one of the two driest places on earth due to climate change. How will this impact on people’s access to water and sanitation? VM: I am not convinced the WWF prediction will become a reality, although the Western and Northern Cape is likely to become much drier due to climate change. Despite the fact that climate change will undoubtedly happen, I believe that it is difficult to make predictions for a specific geographic area.

What will happen in South Africa is that rainfall will become even more unpredictable than it already is, in terms of how much rain will fall where. This will have a negative impact on agriculture and food security. If rainfall shifts, our catchment areas, such as dams, might also be in the wrong place.

In addition, higher temperatures due to climate change will lead to more evaporation from our water surfaces.

IPS: Some experts predict that a water crisis would cause social instability and impede the country’s economic development. Would you agree? VM: I don’t. I think this prediction is over-dramatised. We are on the cusp of a water crisis, and so we need to manage our water resources differently. Water scarcity can be both a challenge and an opportunity.

South Africa’s previous Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs, Kader Asmal, once said the need for water management can lead to democracy, and I agree. People can take things in their hands and find solutions.

We will also have to adapt our economic development according to the water resources we have and develop in a water efficient manner. Otherwise it will come to a crisis. We cannot chase economic growth without taking water into account. In fact, the impact on our water needs to be integrated from the very beginning into every economic development plan.

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