Editorial: Our water woes are a collective burden

31 January 2016 - 02:00 By Sunday Times

South Africa is a semi-arid country and it feels like it's getting drier by the day. In recent months, we have read reports of erratic water supplies in northern KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State hammering tourism revenues, of threats to agricultural jobs and of rising food prices. Farmers are becoming more indebted to banks, as they slaughter animals they can't feed and watch their crops fail.Five provinces have been declared drought disaster areas, and water restrictions have been put in place in metros.Wrenching photographs of dying animals next to dry dams have been published.story_article_left1On the back of these hardships, today we publish the results of the latest Blue Drop and Green Drop reports, which reflect a decline in water quality and waste-water management.Citizens, particularly in rural municipalities, are at risk of illnesses on account of high Ecoli counts in water. As usual, it is the poor who bear the greatest burden of water shortages.The government has done much to improve access to clean water for all South Africans, not least with its free basic water policy.The National Water Act is a progressive piece of legislation that tries to ensure that this most precious of resources is spread fairly among us all.The real challenges, however, lie in maintaining infrastructure, limiting pollution and protecting our water sources.It is not just a question of waiting for El Niño to recede, taking the drought with it. Climate change is altering rainfall patterns significantly, resulting in lower rainfall in some parts of the country.Rising sea levels and acid mine seepage are real and present threats to our water table.Pollution from industry, mining and untreated sewage is harming rivers, dams, catchments and aquifers. Erosion and overgrazing are also contributing to the problems.According to the World Wildlife Fund, humans are using up resources faster than they can be replenished. It estimates that, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will be living in areas facing moderate to severe water stress.Against this backdrop, we cannot afford to be complacent about the decline in water and waste-water management.The challenges facing water boards and municipalities are enormous, but failing to meet them is not an option.story_article_right2Nor should citizens sit on their hands and wait for the government to do all the work.We can all do something - by making our homes, gardens and offices more water-efficient, by harvesting rainwater and by observing water restrictions.The national government and the Western Cape have mooted desalination plants. Although these are prohibitively expensive - and use up a lot of electricity - they are an option for coastal areas.Business needs to make more of an effort to explore collective action to mitigate increasingly scarce water resources in major economic hubs. Industrial grey-water recycling and water treatment programmes are among the areas in which improvements can be made.There is also great scope for entrepreneurs, engineers and academics to come up with solutions at both community and strategic levels.Looking after our water will make it possible to concentrate resources where they are needed most.We don't have a choice but to make it work.

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