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ANALYSIS | Liquid asset: What is South Africa doing to safeguard its water resources?



We know that South Africa is a water-scarce country and that it is among the world's driest regions. With this knowledge, are we doing enough to secure our minimal water sources? 

We should be spurred into action by the water deficit of approximately 17% projected for 2030. The latest National Biodiversity Assessment showed that 64% of our river ecosystems are threatened, and only 13% are adequately protected. South Africa's strategic water source areas occupy 10% of the country, but contribute 50.4% of river flows.

Forty-four percent of the country's wastewater treatment works are in critical condition. Each year, R9.9 billion of water is lost before reaching consumers. 

The Water and Sanitation Master Plan indicates that South Africa needs R33 billion per annum from 2020 to 2030 to achieve water security. I will explore this question by highlighting some of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) interventions. I am not going to look at the many factors contributing to the increasing pollution of water sources such as rivers and streams, which are well documented. I will discuss what can be done in the medium to long term to ensure a secure supply of water for our people after 2030.

Securing water post-2030

"Water is life" is a phrase that has become a cliché, but one we must keep repeating; life on this planet is not possible without water, and neither are the industries that are destroying the world while growing gross domestic product.

In 2015, the DSI put in place the National Water Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap to be implemented by the Water Research Commission (WRC). Before this, the DSI and WRC partnered on the Water Technologies Demonstration Platform (WADER) to bring new water technologies into play.

WADER has demonstrated more than 30 innovations for the water sector, including high-tech interventions, such as a virtual reality technology for municipal technicians to undertake maintenance and repairs, without waiting for technicians from other countries.


In the area of sanitation, technology that reduces the amount of water per flush to two litres has been demonstrated in rural schools.

This is significant because it brings dignity to citizens and protects our children from the risk of falling down pit latrines. However, platforms like WADER need the involvement of the private sector, and all relevant government departments and entities. Public-private partnerships for innovation uptake are vital to achieve the service delivery needs of our municipalities, not only for technical innovation but also at the management and policy level.

The private sector has to start looking more closely at innovators funded through government programmes and support them with mentorship and financing. We have found that mentorship is sorely needed, especially for youth-driven enterprises. Financial support alone does not translate into success. Throwing money at small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) will not increase their sustainability, especially for young black entrepreneurs in the water sector. 

Government departments and their entities need to work on their respective policies to enable the increased uptake of innovations, especially in the water sector.

Water is at the nexus of food, energy and industrial security and needs to be treated as seriously as our energy security.

The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan has outlined a blueprint for water security and has a chapter on research and development (R&D). However, R&D should be central to all aspects of the plan, as R&D also is required not only for water security but to ensure a just transition to a water secure future for our citizens.  

Building the water SMME base in South Africa will contribute to a water economy and water security.

New thinking needed 

New thinking needs to be applied to our increasingly complex water problems, both current and future. The WADER platform provides the link between the development of SMMEs and the demonstration of innovative water technologies to create a pipeline taking new technologies to market. 

A Transformative Innovation Policy project to understand how to strengthen the enabling environment for water governance was launched in July 2020. This "Living Catchments" project aims to create more resilient, better resourced, and more relational communities not only at the catchment level but also national level. This is an essential aspect of the implementation of the Water RDI Roadmap, as catchments are in most instances our water source areas.

This project's catchments are associated with our sustainable water source areas, namely, the uMzimvubu, Tugela, Berg-Breede and Olifants catchments. There is a great need for increased investment in ecological infrastructure (investing in nature) and to strengthen institutional governance at the catchment level. This may transcend provincial and even national boundaries. Governance has been identified as a critical element for water management at a global level, and South Africa is poised once again to show the world a best practice model, this time in catchment governance.

If we want a water secure country by 2030, all of us – government, the private sector and society – must look closely at how we use this finite resource. Proper management and governance tied to appropriate technological innovations are needed to move us forward as a country to achieve that target in the coming eight years. 

- Dr Henry Roman is the Director: Environmental Services and Technologies at the Department of Science and Innovation.

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