South Africa's Water Affairs Minister, Buyelwa Sonjica said in her budget speech on April 15 that the water-scare country will look to use desalinated sea water to meet the growing demand for drinking water.
Reuters reports that the popular tourist coastal towns Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, George and Mossel Bay are facing severe water shortages due to prolonged drought in the southern Cape region. These towns are already turning to saltwater and purifying grey water to meet their needs, and Cape Town is reported to also be considering these options.
But the problem is bigger than this.
Scientists and researchers have been warning of a looming water shortage for the past 30 years, and continue to do so, as increased economic activity, growing population numbers and more intensive farming increases the demand for water while simultaneously degrading the resource.
Reports dating back to 1993 clearly state that “South Africa’s available fresh water resources are almost fully utilised and under stress” and that water use was not sustainable at projected growth rates.
More recently reports by the Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) and the World Wildlife Fund, South Africa’s water demand will exceed supply by 1.7% in 2025, and metropolitan areas like the Witwatersrand are expected to experience shortages as early as 2013.
In addition to this the Department of Water Affairs (DWAF) has suffered both from a lack of qualified staff and a lack of investment in infrastructure over an extended period. This has resulted in poor data and outdated dam management practices. Based on this data, research conducted 2004 to guide the national water resource strategy showed that we were already using 98% of all our water resources.
Water quality is also a problem. In February the DWAF told an ad hoc parliamentary committee on service delivery that less than 11% South Africa’s 283 municipalities have properly functioning water services and that there is an acute risk of disease.
Anthony Turton, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) scientist who was suspended late in 2008 over a key-note presentation he was to give warning of a crisis in the water sector which he, and his co-authors, felt could fan social unrest, said that the problem is also compounded by water resources being contaminated by toxic mine spoils.
This means that an increasing amount of water in South Africa is not only not safe to drink but is also unsafe for irrigation or cattle farming, and Turton warns that an increase in dam temperatures as a result of global warming is likely to result in an increase in blue-green algae that produces additional health risks.
Turton noted that desalination is generally regarded as too expensive. He supports the growing call for a national strategy to address the skills and infrastructure issues and said we need to look at ways to recycle and reuse water.