South Africa: Water Scarcity In Africa Should Get More Airtime On Government And Business Agendas

Last Updated: 8 April 2014
Article by   KPMG

Despite the World Bank reporting that the African continent only uses 2 percent of its water resources, compared to the global average of 5 percent, it remains a fact that water is a scarce resource on most of the continent. Inaccessibility to water in Africa, as well as insufficient models for sustainable management, will present ever-increasing challenges in the future if not addressed.

By 2030, it's said that half of the world's population will live in a water-stressed environment. As economies continue to develop, the trend towards urban dwelling will rise, with people choosing to locate to more built-up centres in search of better life opportunities and employment. Where water is already a scarce resource, as it is in large parts of Africa, rapid urbanisation will necessitate a close look at accessibility, delivery and the infrastructure required to meet growing urban population needs.

"Water is a natural resource to which all African citizens have a right. This must be balanced with the environment's right to water to ensure a sustainable future," says Carl Haycock, COO for WSP's Environment & Energy services in South Africa. "The challenges here centre on balancing supply and demand for both primary and secondary water users, where primary users are people and the environment and secondary users are industry, agriculture and business.

Haycock continues: "In Africa, we already recognise the impact that climate change is having on precipitation patterns and weather events – such as flooding and lower dry-season water flows in rivers. As water is of fundamental importance for continued economic development on the continent, sustainable water practices must provide solutions for maintaining both the quantity and quality of available water within the context of this delicate balance. Water availability can be a constraint to socio-economic development if this balance is not achieved. It doesn't necessarily stop development, but does lead to challenges in sustainable delivery and conservation."

De Buys Scott, KPMG head of infrastructure advisory and global Infrastructure major projects, agrees and adds: "Urbanisation results in an increase in the demand for water in line with the movement of people into more densely populated areas. This also puts additional pressure on water infrastructure. As countries continue on this wave of urbanisation, the conservation of available water resources needs to receive critical attention."

Because most of the continent already faces challenges around water scarcity, it is critical that country leaders take stock of their existing urban infrastructure and reconsider current or future projects and/or plans on the basis of allowing for more access to these increased necessities. In addition, once these are implemented, access to water should be monitored for sustainable use. Business needs to support these efforts, being cognisant of the issues at play in any given system and employing best practice where this is within its power to do.

While there are still untapped water resources in Africa, access is insufficient and there is also a significant amount of wastage in numerous communities. "Governments need to relook their approach to resource management and implement systems and infrastructure to allow access for communities where they are able to practice a basic human right" says Mandla Mlangeni, CEO of MMQS. 

In South Africa, for instance, Government recently claimed that 91% of households have access to piped water. Contradicting this, the SA Human Rights Commission released its water and sanitation report last week, which stated that more than 25% of South Africans do not have access to water in their homes.

The report by the SA Human Rights Commission also highlighted that where most water is used at a relatively low cost by the private sector and business sectors, many informal communities in urban and rural areas are unable to afford access to water facilities. Continues Mlangeni: "As such, there's a need for South African businesses and more importantly Government to assess their vulnerability to water-related risk and to introduce strategies that will enable them to adapt for a sustainable future and economy.  On the other hand, businesses are being approached to provide water to the communities in which they operate and many are already doing this, most notably in the mining, agriculture and energy sectors".

Scott of KPMG continues: "Currently, 36.8 percent of water supply is classified as Non-Revenue Water, where 25.4 percent of this non-revenue water is due to physical leakage. While it is possible to reduce the quantify of non-revenue water – and in fact, this should be a high priority for the Department of Water Affairs and like Departments and agencies - there are certainly great challenges ahead, including developing effective systems to monitor water usage at municipal level, which will also enable more accurate billing systems and metering. But perhaps, more importantly, there is a need to address maintenance of existing water infrastructure in a more comprehensive and integrated manner that will reduce physical water losses and potentially extend the useful life of such assets to communities."

Mlangeni agrees: "We have noticed project cases where Government does not effectively utilise cost managers as independent consultants for their water projects. What they fail to realise is that these challenges can be combated by partnering with consultants who are able to provide forecasts analysis of the surface areas and risk mitigation to prevent over spend and excess usage of water. This leaves room for inadequate utilisation of resources, and lack of transparency and accountability, if systems implemented are not sustainable and effective. In terms of this, there are many lessons to be learnt from how the private sector conducts its projects to manage water accessibility. For instance there are a number of successful projects undertaken by the Mining sector, where they have managed accessibility in-and-around mines."

Haycock adds: "The balance between meeting the needs of primary and secondary water users – people, the environment and then commercial activity – is a delicate one to strike. However, sustainable development in Africa is dependent on it."

Water conservation and sustainable management should be a critical concern for all sectors, Government, business and individuals. If Government and business alike don't work hand-in-hand to ensure sustainable management and access to water resources, water could be the next item the leading economies will clash over, not over resources, famine or weapons but water scarcity.

"To prevent this, communities and business need to respect and conserve water and ensure our sustainable future. As business we need to play our part in addressing conservation and implement systems to manage our projects utilisation thereof," concludes Scott of KPMG.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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