South Africa has recently been through an elongated and, in parts, devastating series of drought episodes over a period of close to four years on the back of the most severe El Niño event in 20 years


The water crisis has affected all communities, some more severely than others, and, indeed, every sector of the South African economy.

South Africa, a traditional grain exporter, had to resort to maize imports to maintain the national food security. While the poorer communities were hard-hit, the even wealthier municipalities including metros like Cape Town and eThekwini were challenged to the extreme. It was a crisis.

The Chinese expression for crisis is ‘wei ji’. ‘Wei’, or danger, is the part we all see and react to immediately. The wiser among us are also remember to engage the ‘ji’ or opportunity. This water crisis will not be the last time we have a period of low rainfall, and we should lean our lesson.

And as we know, leadership is everything. So, what were the principal leadership lessons and opportunities that have emerged from the water crisis?

Firstly, acknowledge the politics of water

During the drought, there was a strong plea from various parties, led by the previous Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, to work across political party lines to engineer quick but sustainable solutions to deal with the water crisis.

This was both correct and effective. However, our ability to develop the long-term solutions for water security and universal access on an equitable basis demands that we acknowledge that water is highly political.

It was a political decision that organised the preferential movement of water to the mines to enable the imperial forces at that time to exploit South Africa’s natural resources. It was a political decision by the Apartheid government to preferentially allocate South Africa’s meagre water resources to the development of the white economy, ensuring their water security while simultaneously removing that water from the black majority, thereby threatening personal water access on the one hand and denying access to water for the development of black business and agriculture on the other.

Equally, it was a political decision in the National Water Act of 1998 by President Mandela’s government to delink water rights from land rights to give impetus to the notion of equitable access for all. In 2018, it will take a political decision to make drastic changes to our economic model to enable water security, going into the future. It will take nothing less than a water and sanitation revolution.

Secondly, planning for extreme scenarios is key

There has been a lot of finger-pointing at the planning model that has been relied upon for long-term water infrastructure investment that guarantees water availability. In particular, the ‘reconciliation’ planning studies conducted in the early 2000s for the Western Cape have drawn sharp criticism. This is the planning tool relied upon by the players at a national, provincial and city level for the past 15 years, and pointed to long-term water security with the current infrastructure, with no new infrastructure needed until 2022.

Early warnings from the likes of the Water Research Commission (WRC) began as early as the 1990s and continued regularly. There were three factors that demanded that the Regional Plan for the Western Cape needed to be revisited. The first is that the population profile and economic character of the region was changing rapidly.

The City of Cape Town has one of the highest resident growth rates in the country while simultaneously investing in a water-intensive economic growth plan. The second factor is the increased frequency of extreme weather events.

Even before the 2014 El Niño, we had a series of high-intensity storm events and intense drought episodes in the Southern African region, all of which demanded an update of the plan. The third factor related to one of the critical success factors of the plan and that was the failure to meet all of the water conservation and water demand management targets that the plan demanded. As a matter of course in an increasingly volatile local and global environment, leaders need to have scenario planning as a key component of their planning toolbox and have to use it regularly. The Western Cape drought has provided added motivation for this.

Thirdly, invest in public water literacy

The motto of the WRC is “Amandla Olwazi Kubantu”, which loosely translates to ‘the power of knowledge to the people’. The 21st-century society is a knowledge-, information- and data-driven one. Managing water behaviour through either appeals or threats may induce a short-term behaviour change but will not offer the long-term change management that is required to ensure a water-secure future.

Knowledge sharing in a manner that takes in the consumer as a partner on this journey is critical. This also means empowering the consumer (individual and corporate) to effect and sustain the water behaviour changes required. We now have a range of tools that allow folk to have a real-time picture of the state of the water system, as well as your individual water consumption.

Advances in analytics and the rapid development of cloud computing means that, as you read this article, you can know exactly how water is being consumed in your household, what the temperature of the water is in your geyser and how this compares to your normal pattern, all courtesy of an app on your cell phone. More importantly, what I am describing is a South African invention coming out of the research funded and supported by the WRC.

Fourthly, embrace the new technology platforms

When President Ramaphosa launched the Sanitation Indaba in his capacity as Deputy President in 2015, he highlighted the fact that there was an obvious incongruency in using a 2000-year-oldwasteful water mechanism, like the flushing of toilets, using almost 30% of household water, in the 30th driest country in the world. Similarly, not recycling adequately robs us of another 30-40% of savings at a household level and possibly higher at an industrial level.

In addition, we know that our water usage in all sectors—mining and agriculture in particular—has the potential for large savings through greater water efficiency. The cherry on top is that the technologies to enable all of this already exist and South Africa’s water, science and technology community is at the forefront of many of them.

Examples include a new toilet system called the Arumloo. Using biomimicry (copying nature) with a special vortex circulation, it already executes a perfect flush with only 500ml of water and further development is expected to get this down to 250ml per flush. This is less than 5% of the water required of the best systems on the shelf today. As a country with great desalination potential, we have developed another innovation that counts as a world first. UCT’s faculty of engineering has developed Eutectic Freeze technology that has the ability to use a low-energy solution to harvest freshwater from saline and polluted waters like AMD.

Even better, the system can then selectively harvest and ‘mine’ high-value salts for economic exploitation. Water leadership in the 21st century must involve the embracing of these and other new innovations that will very soon become the new platform for water and sanitation management.

Fifthly, water security is good business.

On the back of this is the recognition that the water and sanitation needs of South Africa are mirrored by two-thirds of the world’s population. And, all of these countries in the developing world have signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They have expressed the common desire to have universal access to safe water and dignified sanitation in every country in the world by 2030. South Africa has a technology base, a policy environment, a research and development platform and a slew of international partnerships that position the country to be a global provider of technologies and services to meet these needs as envisaged in the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) as well as in the Water Infrastructure Investment Summit. This provides us with a unique global leadership opportunity.

And finally, a strong partnership between the public and private sectors and communities is pivotal

One of the most important leadership lessons learnt from the water crisis was the value of partnership. We have managed to mitigate most of the worst possible impacts of the drought country-wide through the development of many public-private teams and partnerships at all levels. Although there was much discomfort, inconvenience and suffering, Team SA managed to survive the harshest periods of the drought through high levels of co-operation, teamwork and the most public expression of Ubuntu.

Ordinary people were collecting and transporting fresh water to the most severely affected communities, contributing to funds and know-how to help towns and villages to drill boreholes to augment their water supplies. Fellow South Africans gathered in churches and mosques around the country to summon the higher powers to intervene in a true showing of solidarity. It would be a pity if we did not manage to maintain that community spirit and camaraderie in building tomorrow’s Water Team SA. 

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