Buck stops with the public to avert water crisis

06 December 2016

By Minister Nomvula Mokonyane

THE metros are making inroads in turning the tide against the challenge of water shortages, which could potentially have become a full-blown crisis.

On August 12, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) gazetted the curtailment of water use by 15 percent on the integrated Vaal River System due to inconsistent rainfall in the catchment area. The effect of this was to place an obligation on municipalities to comply with the notice and ensure reduction in water consumption in their areas.

We applaud some of the municipalities that have recorded marked signs of improvement in managing water demand; a number of municipalities have done excellent work in containing the rise in water consumption. These municipalities stepped up public education and community buy-in. Some have enforced by-laws successfully and, for the first time last week, we achieved the 15 percent reduction for domestic users required, saving 602 million litres a day.

Although this is not enough to take the country out of the grips of drought, the DWS had to take drastic measures to avert what could have spelt trouble for water supply in the Gauteng, the country’s economic hub.

Water was released from the Sterkfontein Dam to replenish the Vaal Dam, to prevent it from dipping to below 25 percent. The water level in the Vaal Dam is slowly improving, and was at 37 percent as of Thursday. This time last year, the dam was at 53.6 percent.

We should, however, be well aware that the Sterkfontein Dam is only a reservoir to be used as a last resort in times of great need; it should not be seen as a solution for all our water woes. For our dams to reach acceptable levels, we will need to have continued rainfall for a period of two to three years.

In exploring additional means of saving water, the department is working with the Department of Science and Technology in pioneering low-pour flush toilets. This groundbreaking innovation is already being piloted.

The department has also embarked on a nationwide campaign to “drop the block”. The drop-the-block is an ecofriendly innovation of placing a block in a toilet tank/cistern to save water to reduce potable water consumption by up to 2 litres per flush.

Moreover, the department is also prioritising the expansion of dissemination, cleaning of acid mine drainage, recycling and the re-use of grey water as well as water-saving irrigation methods. It is by embracing new technologies that we will be able to chart a new course in saving our precious water resources.

Until we implant a culture of saving water in our daily activities, and ensure water security through building of new infrastructure and maintenance based on a water and sanitation master plan, as the key to informing future water investments, we run the risk of losing what little water we have.

For as long as we do not heed the call to desist from watering gardens or using hosepipes to wash our cars and cleaning our paving, we are compromising even the food security of our country. Although vitally important, there is no number of awareness campaigns that can get the public to do the right thing. The government employs whatever resources it has at its disposal to conscientise the public about the dangers of wasting water, but the truth is that the buck stops with the public. Without working co-operatively with the government to lessen water consumption, we run the risk of continued water scarcity, because we are an arid country.

A number of experts are calling for water to be commodified, arguing that for as long as the public receive water freely, they take it for granted. They argue that appeals to conserve this life-giving resource are falling on deaf ears and that only paying will change behaviour.

However, the drafters of our constitution were mindful of the unassailable importance of water. Hence water provision is one of the fundamental rights that we are enjoined to provide. As much as the government cannot wish this responsibility away, equally the public cannot abdicate its responsibility to save water because water has no substitute.

The department continues to call on everyone to use water wisely, to appreciate this most important source of life.

Nomvula Mokonyane is Minister of Water and Sanitation