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U.N. Water Conference Focuses on Cities

Thandi Winston

CAPE TOWN, Mar 21 2011 (IPS) - As a U.N. conference on water opens in South Africa today, the country’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has repeated warnings that the country faces a water supply crisis. Experts attending the three-day conference will consider the challenges posed by growing demands, migration and water resources potentially limited by careless use and climate change.

Water kiosk operator Melania Leba serving customers in Dar es Salaam. Credit:  Sarah McGregor/IPS

Water kiosk operator Melania Leba serving customers in Dar es Salaam. Credit: Sarah McGregor/IPS

The CSIR report on South Africa states, “The country is facing a water supply crisis caused by a combination of low rainfall, high evaporation rates, an expanding economy and a growing population whose geographical demands for water do not conform to the distribution of exploitable water supplies”.

The issues raised are shared across Africa’s semi-arid regions, with managers grappling with demands for electricity for mining and industry, for water for irrigation to consolidate food security and rural incomes, and the challenge of sustaining domestic water supply to fast-growing cities.

The report makes a frank and honest assessment of how Africa’s biggest economy is handling the pressure. “In 2005, more than 95 percent of the country’s fresh water resources have already been allocated. Water quality has declined due to increased population.”

Mbangiseni Nepfumbada, from the policy and regulation division of the country’s Department of Water Affairs, said he and his colleagues are presently reviewing the country’s national water resource strategy.

“Within SA and perhaps for many countries in Africa, we know know all too well that we are not endowed with water resources and that ours is not much of a choice when it comes to judicious management of water.”

Progress may stall

Since non-racial elections in 1994, water has emerged as a key human rights issue with improving access for both the rural and urban poor becoming a key priority for the government.

Dr Kevin Wall from the CSIR says that in 1994, 60 percent of the country’s population of 39 million had basic access to water. Today nearly 90 percent of a population that has risen to around 45 million have access to water.

But 5.7 million people still lack adequate access.

“South Africa can be rightly proud of the water infrastructure it has rolled out since 1994, and the increasing proportion of the population that now has access to infrastructure that permits first-hand experience of, water is life and sanitation is dignity, but many challenges remain.”

Among the challenges Wall refers are ageing infrastructure and the capacity to maintain and extend it in the future.

Wall’s research shows the estimated cost to replace municipal and water board and services fixed assets is close to 30 billion dollars.

“The rehabilitation or replacement of neglected infrastructure and provision of infrastructure for population growth, immigration into South Africa, and migration within the country are some of the most pertinent issues the country faces,” says Wall.

The way governments find resources to address these challenges will be among the main themes of the next three days, with conflicting arguments over the role of the private sector, cross-subsidising water for the poor against wealthier users, the best way to encourage efficient use and much more.

Lance Veotte, from the South African Municipal Services Union, SAMWU said the cost of water for ordinary people in South Africa and elsewhere across the continent is a primary concern.

“We oppose the privatisation of water. The private sector is not the solution and we must oppose it by all means.”

Strong policies, weak action

Reviewing success and failure in the past is complicated by the gap between policy and implementation. The CSIR’s Wall was critical of government as the central actor in the water sector. “We have fabulous policies, but if we cannot implement them it’s not working, it’s being pissed away.”

Dr Rivha Kfir from the Water Research Commission said, “So much research has been done. We cannot say everything is wrong, it is very important to understand that research will not always be utilised. 

“We have the knowledge and we know how the solve it, but something somewhere has gone amiss. Why are we not where we are? ”

Experts say planning for future stresses is a key ingredient.

“Migration from rural to urban areas is happening. We know it, but what are we prepared to do?” says Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona and under-secretary general and executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, U.N Habitat. “We cannot wait for people to arrive, we need to plan in advance. We have to do it today and not tomorrow.”

Africa is presently the least urbanised region in the world, with only 40 percent of its population in urban areas. According to UN-Habitat, Africa’s urban population is projected to triple to over 1.2 billion by 2050, swelling the size of cities already struggling to cope.  

Pointing to Rwanda, Morocco and South Africa as examples of countries with best practices in this area, he stressed that if planning for public spaces, water and sanitation is accomplished before new influxes to cities, provision of services can be done more cheaply.

“I am remain an optimist that it can be done,” he said.

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