Message from NSTF Executive Director

Forecasting the water crisis



“Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”


This famous quotation comes from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge written in 1797-98. It’s the story of a sailor on board a ship in the middle of the ocean, which cannot sail because of no wind for many days. The quote seems pertinent when a large city, bordered by two oceans, runs short of water.

WC declared disaster area in 2017: Although many people in our country have survived on only a few drops a day for many years, it has recently occurred to the privileged that there is a dire water shortage across the country. Just as we were celebrating the International Year of Sustainable Tourism last year, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Cape Town, was in the process of drying up. The Premier of the Western Cape declared the province a disaster area in May 2017 due to shrinking water supplies.

The crisis was forecast: An article by Zachary Donnenfeld, Senior Researcher at South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies (ISS), says that the crisis is much bigger than Cape Town or the Western Cape: “…the country has been overexploiting its national water system for years, and the consequences are becoming obvious”. The ISS already warned the country in 2014, when it used a sophisticated forecasting system to model water supply and demand. Even if all the laudable strategies of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) were implemented, it could not have warded off the crisis indefinitely.

Issues of wastewater treatment, water consumption, and migration: The article states: “wastewater treatment in South Africa is in an appalling condition”. Furthermore, South Africans use an unacceptable volume of water per capita, almost twice as much as the global average. Because of the huge inequality gap, this means that the wealthy in the country consume even much more than the unacceptably high average. Another element is that, when there are water shortages, people migrate to areas where water is more available. This, in turn, places stress on the water supplies of the newly-inhabited areas.

Further strategies including emergency measures: The ISS had recommended that demand reduction and conservation strategies be combined with supply enhancement measures above what is proposed by the DWS. However, even their recommendations are no longer adequate. Emergency measures must be taken as a matter of urgency.

NSTF discussion forum on the skills drought in the water sector: This might be a good time to look back at the NSTF discussion forum held on 26-27 September 2016 – The Skills drought in the Water sector – hosted by the Science Councils and Statutory Bodies sector of the NSTF. Some of the main discussion points were:

* Engineering skills of all kinds and at all levels are critically important if we are to solve our water problems, but there is a dire shortage of professional engineers.

* Maintenance and renewal of infrastructure are crucial. Large parts of South Africa have old infrastructure that needs urgent attention.

* The shortage of engineers in the water sector is exacerbated by the limited number of graduates and registrations in the two important categories of civil engineers and civil engineering technologists. A major challenge is also the lack of suitable workplace placements for experiential training.

* Jobs and careers in the water sector should be actively promoted so that young people qualify for a useful role in this sector.

* There should be more public awareness of what is being done in the water sector, eg what DWS is doing (a comprehensive skills audit, and provision of study and training opportunities through its Learning Academy), and The Young Water Professionals Programme (YWPP) which provides mentors from industry and career guidance.

* Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges are very important, because that is where young people are equipped with the necessary skills. It is therefore essential that the TVET colleges are resourced optimally and staffed by experts in the required skills areas.

* Postgraduate studies in water-related fields are essential and should be supported.

* Innovations to solve problems in the water sector will allow the country to fast-track efficient solutions. However, innovation requires financial support for feasible ideas and entrepreneurs who are starting up relevant businesses.

* The Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority (EWSETA) needs to ensure that appropriate learning programmes are available. This is especially important for people who are already qualified and/or employed, and re-skilling might be necessary to move capable people into the water sector.

* Attitudes can be a barrier or an enabler. We all need to redefine our thinking about water supply and consider the re-use of wastewater as a possible part of the solution.

* Collaboration is needed among the tiers of government, among the provinces, and among the various sectors and institutions in coordinating skills planning, funding and monitoring mechanisms – indeed this is the only way to solve complex and urgent problems.

Government recognising water crisis: The water crisis was already regarded as dire by the experts who attended and presented at this NSTF discussion forum and, of course, by the ISS four years ago. Now the crisis is officially recognised by national government in 2018. This means more hope of developing solutions across the country, similarly to what is happening in Cape Town.

Sustainability and long-term planning beyond politics: Sustainable solutions to South Africa’s water woes will require long-term planning – with a future vision longer than the terms served by politicians. This includes skills as a key aspect of the long-term planning.