Climate change and South Africa’s water woes — an urgent call to community action

Climate change and South Africa’s water woes — an urgent call to community action

The Blue Drop, Green Drop and No Drop reports released in early December by the Department of Water and Sanitation show a complete deterioration in quality controls across the country — 46% of drinking systems don’t comply with microbiological standards, 67.6% of wastewater treatment works are failing and 47.4% of our water is lost or unaccounted for. It’s time for communities to take action before it’s too late.

Image: WaterCAN

he science of climate change is clear and demands urgent action. The mounting scientific evidence of a climate catastrophe is not going to wait for politicians to get on board to tackle climate change with the urgency it needs. This year’s United Nations 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting (known as COP28) is once again evidence that it is nothing but a talk shop with very little action.

After 28 years of COPS, this year there was some fanfare for the inclusion of the text calling for “a transition from fossil fuels”. But it’s not good enough. What was really needed was a strong approach to phasing out fossil fuels not phasing down.

What this means is that with the current commitments (or lack thereof) from governments, the world is now on track for about 2.5℃ of warming by 2100. The UN says that the window for keeping the 1.5 limit is “rapidly narrowing” as we are presently at about 1.1℃ or 1.2℃ compared with pre-industrial times.

Read more in Daily Maverick: COP28 news hub

This means that the change and action we need is going to have to be pushed by ordinary people if we want to avoid catastrophic climate shocks. In the water sector, this is going to mean communities mobilising and changing our relationship with how we use water and not waiting for the government to make the changes.

Impact of global heating on water

According to a Unicef article in March 2023, around 74% of natural disasters between 2001 and 2018 were water-related, including droughts and floods. The frequency and intensity of such events are only expected to increase with climate change. In essence, the article underscores that “a change in climate is felt primarily through a change in water”.

Climate change is going to affect both the quantity and quality of water further reducing access to safe drinking water across the world. Extreme weather can destroy or contaminate water supplies (the KZN ‘rain bomb’ is a case in point), increasing the risks of waterborne diseases including cholera and other pathogens. The rising sea levels are causing fresh water to become salty.

Looking at South Africa’s water, it’s clear that we can no longer rely on government alone to find the solutions or action the solutions to ensure safe, sustainable drinking water. The Blue DropGreen Drop and No Drop reports released in early December by the Department of Water and Sanitation show a complete deterioration in quality controls across the country — 46% of drinking systems don’t comply with microbiological standards, 67.6% of wastewater treatment works are failing and 47.4% of our water is lost or unaccounted for.

The reports should have us all on high alert. It is a crisis and adding climate change will be like adding fuel to the fire.

Add climate change to the empty cauldron

Water is life. The combination of climate change, pollution and demand will put enormous pressure on our water that could result in depleted water resources. By 2025, we will not have sufficient water supplies to meet human and ecosystem requirements. Water is needed in all aspects of our lives. It is used for a range of activities including sanitation, healthcare, food, and life for all living organisms.

Clearly, our water resources, river ecosystems and infrastructure are in a dire state.

The Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, suggests there is no crisis. But a crisis is not just about the quantity of water in dams but also about the efficacy of the whole system. In Johannesburg, many areas are experiencing no water or intermittent supplies. In eThekwini and Cape Town, beaches had to be closed because of high levels of E.coli in the water. In smaller towns the water is just undrinkable because of bacteria.

Almost 60% of river ecosystems are threatened with extinction.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Water pollution: SA needs to act on herbicides, pesticides: experts 

Water boards, responsible for bulk water supply and infrastructure are over-extended, cannot abstract enough water to meet the demand, and have not been paid by municipalities risking complete failure of our water system.

There is a concern regarding dam safety. In November 2022 the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation hearing on Dam Safety and status of tailings dams that of the top 20 largest dams owned by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), only two dams are compliant with Dam Safety Evaluations requirements and only 45% of dams owned by Water Boards are compliant.

In an extreme drought or flood event, we do not have the mechanisms in place to ensure people’s safety and health.

Municipalities are failing, they cannot keep up with leaks, lost water, polluted water, failed wastewater treatment works. There are very few (if any) that will be able to withstand a climate shock or event as we witnessed in KZN in 2022.

Municipalities can’t even do the basics and notify consumers now in the event of water quality being compromised or not monitored.

Many do not have water management plans — so how will they deal with or are planning to deal with climate shocks? We must not wait for it to hit us like an unexpected tsunami. We the people have to build our networks and act.

Organised communities and people to deal with water

The vast challenges we are facing in the water sector do not have a one-stop solution. As a start, let’s declare the water situation a crisis or disaster because that is what it is.

We need everyone to build on ideas and solutions that can be tackled at a local level. We need to build on the energy that we are seeing across SA of people cleaning their communities, fixing bridges, painting traffic lights, and filling potholes.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Water crisis forum established to address residents’ concerns

Beyond that, NGOs and residents associations can do a range of things to monitor local governments from questioning the effectiveness of government spending, especially on water tanks across the country. Increase water quality testing and make the information publicly available. Using the data, demand accountability from municipalities.

In many of these community groups and organisations, there are a range of skills that can be built on and shared. It is through these networks that we will be able to change our relationship with water and find local solutions and responses to climate shocks, including everyone becoming more aware of saving, reusing, recycling and respecting water.

It is not about doing the work of municipalities, it is about taking back our cities and about protecting our future by building responses to climate risks and water resources — a very vital resource for now and into the future. Everyone can play a role in helping to save water and fight climate change. As we come together to talk about these challenges we can also build new ideas and solutions.

The time for positive action to save water and protect our climate is now. We cannot wait for local governments to act for us — they really just don’t give a damn!


About WaterCAN:
WaterCAN is a dedicated environmental organisation committed to preserving and protecting South Africa’s water resources. With a mission to promote responsible water management and raise awareness about water quality, the organisation empowers communities to become proactive stewards of their local water sources. If you would like to support our work, kindly Donate Here.

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