The need for water is universal, defying location, background or social standing. It is vital to almost every living system – plants, animals, and the numerous materials that sustain humankind. It underpins the functioning of schools, hospitals, agriculture and industry. Yet, it is also a resource that is becoming increasingly threatened, while not enough is done to protect and preserve it. According to the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, demand will outstrip supply across the country by 2025, with this being a reality in Gauteng in 2013 already. This month, as South Africa celebrates both World Water Day (22 March) and NationalWater Week (17-23 March), the need to effectively manage this precious resource is more pressing than ever.
In hot water
One important factor fuelling the water crisis is climate change, with global warming affecting water systems, precipitation, and water availability. The past few years have seen an increase in floods, storms and heat waves, and unpredictable weather is wreaking havoc for both small and large scale farmers. In South Africa, climate change is likely to lead to wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons*, exacerbating existing challenges.
With the water cycle becoming increasingly erratic, the role of natural regulators has gained widespread attention. Trees, for example, play an important role in humidifying the air and regulating the rain cycle by “exhaling” immense amounts of water through evaporation and transpiration. Trees also serve as water storage sites, absorbing runoff during floods and slowly releasing moisture into the atmosphere during dry periods. Of course, trees can also help slow the effects of global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2), helping to decrease the atmospheric concentration of CO2.
With this in mind, Food and Trees for Africa’s (FTFA) Trees for All programme is holding a volunteer day at Amakaya Orphanage in Lenasia on 22 March. The Trees for All programme helps plant trees in communities around South Africa, and in celebration of World Water Day, is planting 43 trees with the help of beneficiaries and children.
Tinashe Mutoredzanwa, Trees and Carbon Programme Manager at FTFA, says it’s important to plant trees during these kinds of events to educate people on the link between water and trees. “Planting trees contributes to soil management, improves drainage, and reduces run-off. It improves water quality and reduces flooding,” he says.
Trees also improve local livelihoods in general, notes Mutoredzanwa, as healthy forests provide sustainable sources of productivity. “Trees help increase food yield, protect soil erosion from wind and water to enable nearby agriculture, and create short-term employment in beneficiary communities,” he explains.
In another World Water Day event, FTFA is planting 500 trees in conjunction with Konica Minolta South Africa at the FEED Farm in Rethabiseng, Bronkhorstspruit, under the Trees for Homes initiative.
According to Mutoredzanwa, the trees will create around 1.25 hectares of urban forest and sequestrate approximately 185 tonnes of CO2. In addition, 10 unemployed Rethabiseng residents will be trained in climate change, environmental awareness and management, resulting in short-term employment for a period of one year. They will go door-to-door to inform residents about the initiative, the environment, and the importance of trees.
“In order to fight climate change, planning should start now and people should be educated and taught about climate change as well as mitigation and adaptation measures,” says Mutoredzanwa.
Every drop counts
While more than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, less than 1% of this is available for human use. Water scarcity is already a problem in many areas and, according to the Postdam Institute for Climate Change Research, hundreds of millions of people will experience new or aggravated forms of water scarcity by 2100. Africa alone already has more than 115 million people in regions with water scarcity**. If the temperature increases by three degrees, then 83 million additional people in Africa will be affected.
South Africa is classified as a water-stressed country (ranked the 30th driest in the world), yet it has few household water-saving programmes that are actively enforced. South Africans also have a relatively high per capita water use, around 286 litres per person per day, according to the Water Research Commission’s (WRC) 2013 study. In comparison, the international average is 173 litres. South Africa’s status as a water-stressed country has led to several policy measures aimed at conserving water, with a target of reducing water losses by half by 2014.
In line with this goal, water use efficiency, conservation and demand management is a key priority in the Second National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS2). If South Africa is to match supply with demand in future, major changes at national, provincial, and individual level are needed. The WRC study of 132 municipalities estimates that 36.8% of water supplied in the country is non-revenue water (water lost before it reaches the customer). Physical leakages are responsible for about a quarter of the losses but poor planning, limited financial resources and poor infrastructure asset management also play a role. This loss represents about R7.2 billion a year, highlighting the dire financial, not to mention humanitarian, consequences of ineffective water management.
While the NWRS2 sets a target to reduce non-revenue water in municipalities to 15% by 2014, the study indicates this may be difficult to achieve without injecting billions of Rand into water demand management interventions countrywide within the next two years. Given the country’s many competing priorities, a more realistic target of 25% within 10 years has been put forward, but this will still see a quarter of supplied water being lost while requiring an investment of approximately R2 billion per annum in municipalities across South Africa.
A priority for everyone
In a recent United Nations MY World survey of over one million global citizens, access to clean water and sanitation came in amongst the top five priorities for all people, regardless of their education level, age, gender or country group. Yet, many communities in South Africa are still without running water or proper sanitation. While access to water is enshrined in the Constitution, with access at 90% according to last year’s State of the Nation address, progress hasn’t been as steady in terms of sanitation. This follows a global trend, with only 63% of the world population having access to improved sanitation, according to the World Bank.
In 2010, some 11 million South Africans remained cut off from sanitation and the goal for universal access was pushed back from its 2010 deadline to 2014***. In addition, access to water and sanitation does not necessarily mean improved wellbeing, as poor service and quality can lead to health problems that undermine sustainable development. Water scarcity, poor water quality, and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices, and educational opportunities for poor families across the world, according to the UN. The organisation reports that millions of children die from poor sanitation each year, with poor hygiene or a lack of safe water leading to diseases.
Providing safe drinking water and sanitation to all is clearly a development imperative, and one that South Africa will have to achieve if it hopes to realise any of its other national and provincial goals.
Equally important is the conservation of water for the natural environments that sustain life, such as river systems and wetlands. In its National Development Plan 2030, the National Planning Commission notes that the global economy has entered a period of ‘ecological deficit’, whereby “natural capital (groundwater, marine life, terrestrial biodiversity, crop land and grazing) is being degraded, destroyed or depleted faster than it can be replenished”. These natural resources are not only vital for preserving the country’s biodiversity, but form the basis of many people’s livelihoods, who depend on agriculture, forests and fish stocks for their survival.
As SA heads to World Water Day and National Water Week this March, Jeunesse Park, Climate Reality African Branch Manager and founder of Food & Trees for Africa, urges everyone to be more conscious of the way they use and manage water.
“We all know South Africa is a water scarce country, one of the 30 driest countries in the world, and the effects of climate change are exacerbating this,” says Park. “We cannot live without water yet already 1 billion people do not have a safe way to access regular water, and another 2.5 billion people do not have regular sanitation. This is unacceptable.
“Indeed, the World Economic Forum has just recognised that water is one of the top three planetary threats of greatest concern (debt crises and unemployment being the others). Now is the time for us to act and there is so much we all can do. We need to use our water resources conservatively and sustainably, thinking of future generations and those across the planet who suffer shortages.”
Ms Park called on organisations, government, individuals, schools and communities to pay attention to water usage and the implement water conservation techniques, which can be as simple as switching off the tap while brushing one’s teeth.
“Small actions can have big impacts and each one of us can make the difference,” she said.
For more information on National Water Week, see: http://www.dwaf.gov.za/events/NWW2014/background.aspx