[OPINION] Water projects everywhere, but yielding nothing fit to drink | Infrastructure news

South Africa does not face a looming water crisis, it’s already happening. And it’s going to get a lot worse unless the government gives our ailing water infrastructure the urgent attention it requires, says Databuild CEO Morag Evans.

South Africa has always been a water-scarce country owing to unevenly distributed rainfall patterns. Additionally, factors such as a burgeoning population, increasing urbanisation and migration, as well as industrialisation place a further strain on the nation’s water availability.

Add to this the effects of climate change, where extreme weather events such as floods and prolonged droughts are becoming more commonplace and it’s not surprising that our already constrained water supply is being stretched to its limits.

As if this were not enough to contend with, the situation is being further exacerbated by a marked decline in the quality of this life-giving resource.

Indeed, the government’s latest Blue Drop report reveals that the tap water quality in 23% of municipalities is ranked at “critical risk”, with residents in some areas being warned to boil the water before drinking it as its safety cannot be assured.

According to Evans, access to water is a basic human right and the provision of clean, drinkable water is an essential service that municipalities are required to provide.

“Yet our country is continually plagued by poorly maintained pipelines, ageing, and faulty water treatment plants, and improperly managed water sources,” she says.

“Consider, for example, the recent crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay where the water was pronounced undrinkable owing to the presence of E.coli, the result of contamination at a water treatment plant.

“That it took four months to resolve the situation is shocking. And the same metro is now in danger of running out of water because of ongoing problems with the pump station infrastructure.”

Nelson Mandela Bay is not unique, Evans adds. “The number of dysfunctional water and wastewater treatment plants in South Africa is growing, yet there is a complete lack of urgency within government to do something about it.

“Rather than continuing to rely on outdated technologies for the treatment of water, the government should look to processes such as ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and oxidation. These technologies – all of which are readily available in South Africa – have proven to be effective in coping with variations in the quality of raw water as a result of pollution and climate change.” 

Projects behind schedule

No fewer than 20 large water and sanitation projects are currently under construction across the country, Evans continues. “This all sounds good and well, but the sad reality is that all of them are behind schedule, for a variety of reasons, some by as much as five years.

“To say this is concerning is an understatement. There is no point in initiating a myriad of water and sanitation projects if they do not ultimately yield anything fit to drink.”

Evans appeals for urgent collaboration between the government and private sector regarding the consumption, treatment, and conservation of water.

“South Africa’s water situation is critical, but we have the requisite expertise to manage our water resources efficiently and sustainably. It’s time we started doing so before it’s too late,” she concludes.

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