Water scarcity implications and actions

We are heading deeper into a global water crisis. For over 633 million people, opening a tap and having access to safe potable water, is a luxury far beyond their reach, whilst the demand for water is estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

South Africa is experiencing one of the most severe water scarcity crises in the country’s history. Increasing populations and a growing industry place pressure on catchments in South Africa that can’t keep up with the demand. The release of the 2017 SA Future Water Scenarios Report highlights some hard truths by forecasting the dyer future of water supply in South Africa by 2030.  If we continue with business as usual,  South Africa will experience increasingly high water wastage due to poor infrastructure, be unprepared when drought hits us again with devastating consequences and with economic growth driving water demand, we will eventually outpace our supply.

Availability of water is an issue that affects us all.  Not only for the obvious reasons including food production, sanitation and health, but also economic development and growth. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a UN-initiative launched in 2015 recognises the crucial role clean, safe water plays in eradicating extreme poverty, improving food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities. As a business leader and technical expert in water risk and related strategy development and implementation, what strikes me the most and I believe should be top of mind for strategic leaders, is the undeniable link between water and socio-economic progress.  Progressive South African business leaders can’t afford not to be cognisant of the SDGs and play a part in reaching the 2030 targets.

Industrial water use accounts for approximately 11% of total water usage in South Africa.  It has been projected that in rapidly industrialising countries current proportions could increase five times over the next 10 – 20 years.  Industry players should seriously consider how water risks can affect their business and act accordingly.  Water risks include financial, reputational, and regulatory risks.  With an increased need to reduce water consumption, water pricing mechanisms will be implemented as part of a market-based water pricing strategy, making water abstraction and discharge more costly and affecting business capital and operational expenditures.  As water scarcity awareness increases, so do investor requirements to meet their triple bottom lines, putting companies at risk of divestment should their policies not match the global need for more sustainable practices.  Finally, penalties and the implementation of the law will become more stringent and consistent, placing industries who are non-compliant at major risk of financial costs or operational shut-downs.

So, what should be done? As a country we excel in the development and promulgation of policy, evident across most government departments. South Africa’s National Water Act is one of the most progressive water acts in the world.  Our biggest failure however, is in the implementation of this legislature. With limited resources and skills, government simply cannot be expected to facilitate the development of South Africa away from entrenched water scarcity by 2030. It is therefore imperative that government, business, industry and agriculture work collectively towards reducing the risks of water scarcity by strengthening implementation of existing policies and developing mitigating rather than reactive strategies.

There are several measures that industry and business can take:

  1. Start by unpacking your water footprint by identifying your current water intake, usage and discharge. This is critical in the process to identify potential opportunities for water efficiencies, savings and reuse.
  2. Identify opportunities to reduce your water use in your process and use wastewater in your business itself or between several businesses to form a viable symbiotic relationship.
  3. Join/form a government and industry water task forum – be a part of the solution!
  4. Make company provisions to local municipalities for the lending of skills and resources to improve water accessibility.

In the long run these measures will help to ensure water security, efficiency and improved service delivery, allowing for operational and capital savings and ultimately competitive advantage, while securing the future of your business.

By Helen Hulett

(As featured in Directorship, July/August/September 2017 issue)