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Updated Nov 16, 2023, 8:30am EST
africa

Water crisis: Lessons from South Africa

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The Facts

JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN — There’s a giant clock ticking until the next major city runs out of water, and it could take a trillion dollars a year to stop a countdown that affects us all. That’s what the World Resources Institute estimates the world would need to spend every year – 1% of global GDP — to deliver sustainable, clean water for the world.

In our most ambitious mini-documentary yet, Water Crisis: Lessons from South Africa, I met up with journalists Sam Mkokeli, and Latashia Naidoo to report from where the reality on the ground suggests the clock is going to be repeatedly hitting zero.

Cape Town made international news in 2018 on the subject, as it hurtled toward “day zero,” when a historic drought would force it to become the first major city to turn off running water to its citizens, and require people to collect it at distribution centers.

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Less widely reported though is that today, neighborhoods in South Africa’s economic hub, Johannesburg, have been without water for weeks. And this time, there’s no drought.

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South Africa’s director-general of water & sanitation Dr. Sean Phillips painted a dire picture of the country’s efforts to meet its constitutional mandate to provide clean water to all its people. “For the people in Johannesburg now who are experiencing disruptions in their water supply, it is a crisis.”

The pivot to optimism we expected was not forthcoming as he sees the failures adding up across the country. “If you look at the results now compared to 10 years ago, you can see there’s a decline. Both in the performance of the wastewater treatment systems, and in the performance of the drinking water systems.”

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His department has gone on the offensive, blanketing South African media to make sure the public knows they’re taking the problem seriously, and as the nation’s water regulator, bringing charges against municipalities who aren’t delivering reliable water to the public.

Residents aren’t convinced.

Myra just turned 82 the day before, and was indignant to be carrying water home from a tanker. “Two, three years ago we used to have water, we used to have electricity. No problem. And suddenly, boom, nothing.” She has a simple question for the government. “We were told that it’s not that we don’t have water because our dams are full,” she told us. “So, why isn’t the water being pumped in? What is the reason?”

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Why, in the economic capital of South Africa, hasn’t her neighborhood – and many others – had running water in months? The resulting blame game features a distinctly circular feel, but adds up to lower water pressure, which can affect higher-lying neighborhoods.

But there’s a broader failure unfolding.

“We’ve gone from about 50% access to water supply infrastructure, at the end of Apartheid, to over 90% now, which is a major achievement,” Dr. Phillips told Semafor. “The problem is reliability has gone in the opposite direction. So reliability has gone from 90 percent down to about 60%.”

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Joe’s view

The scenario for South Africa, and the world, is dire. Any human should hope COP28 will find a way to start closing the world’s budget gap for clean water. Estimates of what the gap is range from $200 billion to $1 trillion in additional infrastructure spending needed every year. I’m not holding my breath.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for optimism. I spoke to Henk Ovink, member of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, who are supporting systems to create new investment systems that will speed up this development.

He compared water to oil — and how quickly the EU mobilized to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, given its status as a crucial commodity. The conundrum is that water is a human right, but doesn’t come close to having the infrastructure to mobilize the world’s governments in the same way without being treated as a valuable commodity. We likely can only provide the world enough water if it’s priced more appropriately – charging commercial users who have been subsidized an estimated $700 billion a year, while keeping it free for those who can’t afford it.

So I can find some optimism in how that’s starting to change thanks to the efforts of climate financiers — projects like the UN-backed Green Climate Fund, which made a $235 Million investment in a new South African “Water Partnerships Office” that promises to create water reuse projects worth $1.5 billion in South Africa such as one spearheaded by the city of Cape Town. This kind of water recycling is exactly what’s powered Singapore’s unusual success in providing plentiful water to support a bustling, growing economy in a water scarce region.

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