South Africa can avoid a national water crisis

A new study sets out aggressive measures to offset guaranteed water shortages in the future.

Even if South Africa uses less water and applies all of government’s existing plans, the country will still face a water crisis in the next 20 years. Solutions are within reach – but turning things around will take significant financial investment and political will.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Water Research Commission today launched results of the only publically available national water forecast for South Africa up to 2035.

‘Water scarcity is most severe in the Western Cape, but other parts of the country are overexploiting their renewable water resources too’, says ISS senior researcher and lead author of the new ISS report, Zach Donnenfeld. ‘This is a national problem with severe consequences for human development and economic growth’.

Using the International Futures (IFs) forecasting system, the study took into account every major reconciliation strategy planned by government – most of which focus on building more dams. The analysts also rebuilt the entire water model in the IFs system to allow demand to be constrained by water availability.

But even with all of these interventions, the study finds that South Africa will overexploit its renewable water resources until 2035 – which marks the end of the forecast horizon and the time period in the National Water Resource Strategy.

There is hope, however. On both the supply and demand side, action is needed now on several specific measures.

The supply of water can be increased through various interventions. Less than half of South Africa’s municipal wastewater is treated. Much of the rest is insufficiently treated before it is released downstream. Groundwater is underused, particularly in the agricultural sector. This could free up surface water for use in other sectors.

On the demand side, South Africans use a lot of water and will have to learn to use less. At 235 litres per person daily, per capita water consumption in the country is above the global average of 173 litres.

In a water scarce country like South Africa, more incentives to conserve water are essential. These should include tiered pricing (where users are charged a higher rate for water consumption above what is considered necessary for daily human activity), incentives for consumers to purchase water efficient appliances, and new building codes.

‘Our research shows that available technologies can be used to mitigate water scarcity’, says Donnenfeld.

‘By reducing per capita consumption in the municipal sector, increasing the amount of wastewater that is treated and returned to the system, using groundwater more in agriculture, and moving away from coal-fired power plants, the country can bring its water sector back into balance.’

The future of South Africa’s water sector is uncertain. Nobody can be sure how much rain will fall over the coming decade. But what is clear is that the country is living beyond its water resources. Each day that passes, the problem becomes more difficult, and more expensive, to fix.

‘What South Africa needs’, says Donnenfeld ‘is a coordinated approach to water management, across all three tiers of government as well as civil society and individual residents. National government can invest in bulk water infrastructure while provincial and municipal governments can do more to reduce demand. Individuals also need to use less water’.   

Since the ISS published its first national level supply and demand forecast in 2014, the situation has not appreciably improved. Political attention to the issue seems more focused on assigning blame than designing and implementing solutions. Moreover, planning that has taken place has been purely reactive, with little evidence of long-term preparations to respond to water security in South Africa.

For media enquiries, contact:

Zach Donnenfeld, ISS: [email protected], +27 63 035 0876

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the following members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.
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