Water is one of South Africa’s scarcest and most critical resources. Half of the country’s water comes from only 10% of its surface area, and in some cases, such as Johannesburg, additional water is sourced from outside our borders.
It is not easy to present a rosy picture of South Africa’s water future. Even the country’s substantial water infrastructure is testament to a resource often in short supply that needs to be collected as broadly and effectively as possible.
But, as the WWF puts it, we have fallen into the trap of thinking water comes from a tap or dam. It doesn’t. They are part of a value chain that starts in nature. More needs to be done to ensure those natural resources keep on providing.
Data from the Department of Environmental Affairs paints a worrying picture: 57% of local river ecosystem types are considered to be threatened, almost half of which are critically endangered. And of the 300 000 wetlands in SA, 65% are threatened (two-thirds are critically endangered).
Wetlands and rivers are critical to help filter water and top up aquifers. Only 11% have some form of formal protection. Many reside in areas with settlements that rely directly on their supply.
“Despite the many challenges we can turn the situation around,” says Chetan Mistry, Xylem South Africa‘s Strategy and Marketing Manager.
“Fortunately, we know much more today about water management and there are many best practices that can make differences at the macro and micro levels. I would say that water challenges that seemed unsolvable not so long ago are now much easier to tackle. It’s a matter of will and focus: if we really want to, we can make South Africa a much more water-strong nation,” says Mistry.
Xylem recommends several interventions to make local water a more sustainable resource:
- Better irrigation practices: Irrigation for agriculture is the biggest consumer of water (around 65% of surface water). Many still rely on wasteful irrigation systems, and there is room to introduce new techniques such as drip irrigation. Farmers can also benefit from better soil and watering monitoring systems, taking the guesswork about how much water crops need at a certain point. Xylem provides water control and management systems for large and small farms.
- Improve performance of water infrastructure: South Africa benefits from a vast amount of water infrastructure, including numerous larger dams and substantial pipelines feeding into cities and towns. But according to a Greencape report, 37% of our water is lost through leaks. Using technologies such as Xylem’s Smartball acoustic sensor, we can detect leaks before becoming a serious problem. Xylem also provides new ways to monitor and manage wastewater easily.
- Educating urban users on saving water: South Africans are not very sensitive about our water resources, leading to shock when we run out (such as droughts in the Western and Eastern Capes or reservoirs running low in Johannesburg.) It’s too easy to take water for granted, so Xylem encourages education around water management. Businesses that consciously want to save on water costs can train their staff. Such education is even more effective when working with communities. Xylem’s corporate social arm, Watermark, frequently collaborates with local communities and NPOs to promote responsible water usage that resonates with the people on the ground.
- More protection for water areas: As mentioned earlier, South Africa’s rivers and wetlands are not in a good position, and many are critically endangered. Likewise, many catchment areas are not protected and often fall prey to new developments that upset the local ecology. Yet, those ecologies capture and filter water for our use. If they run dry, no amount of rain will change the picture. Xylem collaborates with other stakeholders to create sustainable practices around water resources, such as the W12 conference. It provides environmental monitoring and analysis services to better understand the needs of local areas such as wetlands, aquifers and rivers.
- Encourage water reuse and discharging water responsibly: Water becomes more sustainable if it’s in a recycling loop. This principle applies notably to two areas. First is to encourage people to reuse water, which could refer to purification for drinking, but also includes greywater for irrigation and capturing rainwater. On the other side of the spectrum, responsible and discriminate discharge of wastewater avoids unhygienic situations and contaminating potable water.
“We believe there is enough water for everyone in South Africa, but only if we can manage water in a prudent and sustainable manner,” says Mistry. “Today, we have many more tools at our disposal to make that a reality. In terms of technology, there are advanced energy-saving pumps, soil water probes, remote sensing data, and wastewater treatment solutions, to name a few, supported by best practices. The means to make South Africa water-secure is there – it must just be applied in a holistic and multilateral way.”
Xylem is not just invested in water to provide those solutions. Water for all is the core of its mission, as laid out by Xylem’s 2025 Goals:
- Save more than 16.5 billion cubic metres of water through the use of advanced technologies;
- Prevent over 7 billion cubic metres of polluted water from flooding communities or entering local waterways;
- Provide access to clean water and sanitation solutions for at least 20 million people;
- Ensure 100% of employees have access to clean water and safe sanitation at work, at home and during natural disasters;
- Give 1% of Xylem employees’ time and 1% of company profits to water-related causes and education;
- Use 100% renewable energy and 100% process water recycling at its major facilities.
As Nelson Mandela said, every South African deserves employment, food and water. But without the latter, the former two will quickly run dry. As we advance through the 21st century, there are many more options on the table to manage this precious resource well and avoid a water crisis.
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