The Department of Water Affairs: Safeguarding the nation’s water supply

As the effects of climate change become ever more apparent, water becomes an increasingly precious commodity around the world.

The Department of Water Affairs is the custodian of South Africa’s water and forestry resources and is responsible for the management of clean, safe water and its distribution around the country.

Its aim is to ensure the availability and supply of water on a national level; ensure equitable and efficient provision of water services at local level and to promote the sustainable forest management.

The Department is responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy governing these sectors.

irrigationThe corporate website further outlines the Department’s role: “While striving to ensure that all South Africans gain access to clean water and safe sanitation, the water sector also promotes effective and efficient water resources management to ensure sustainable economic and social development.

“The forestry programme promotes the sustainable management of the country’s natural forest resources and commercial forestry for the lasting benefit of the nation.”

The importance of the Department was highlighted in March when news came through that it had launched a short-term intervention plan to relieve the plight of water-scarce Ikhwezi Municipality in the Eastern Cape.

Ikhwezi Municipality includes Jansenville, Klipplaat and Waterford. In Jansenville there was a problem with both water quality and quantity and it was reported that the poor water quality had affected the ability of Ikwezi municipality to attract investments.

A report released by Water Affairs department in 2012 revealed a number of short-comings on the state of water in some areas. The report also suggested that 33 per cent of the Eastern Cape’s municipalities had no water safety plans to ensure the water was of good quality.

In 2013 it was announced that a water partnership for South Africa had been launched at the World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town.

The Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs of South Africa, Edna Molewa, Chairman of Nestlé and Chairman of the Water Resources Group Peter Brabeck-Letmathe announced a Declaration of Partnership. Recognizing the critical role that water plays as a catalyst for both economic growth and social development, the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) of South Africa forged a partnership with the Water Resources Group (WRG), an influential public-private global network on water supported by the World Economic Forum and the International Finance Corporation.

This new public-private group, chaired by the director-general of the DWA, will oversee the activities of a partnership called “South Africa Strategic Water Partners Network” to address critical water issues in South Africa: water conservation, demand management and developing more sustainable management of groundwater resources.

“This new partnership between the Government of South Africa and the Water Resources Group will help identify how South Africa’s plans for growth can be met with the water it has safely available. The foresight and leadership of Minister Molewa in this regard should be applauded” remarked Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of Nestlé and Chairman of the Water Resources Group.

tap-waterIn South Africa, water demand is expected to rise by 52 per cent within the next 30 years while the supply of water is sharply declining. If current trends of leakage from aged and poorly maintained municipal infrastructure and the loss of wetlands persist, this growth in demand will intensify competition for water resources across all sectors of the economy (agriculture, energy industry and domestic). Should status quo in management practices remain, a gap of 17 per cent between water demand and supply is forecast by 2030. This gap will have serious social and political implications and strongly impact South Africa’s plans for economic growth.

“The Water Resources Group partnership will enable South Africa to access best practice economics, projects and policies in water management from public, private and civil society sectors around the world, enabling officials to field-test and replicate actions for implementation domestically,” explained Dominic Waughray, Senior Director, Head of Environmental Initiatives at the World Economic Forum, and member of the Water Resources Group.

The group will focus on key areas: Water conservation and demand management: increasing water use efficiency (in agriculture, industry and households) and reducing leakage from distribution networks (municipal and others, including irrigation); and diversifying the water mix: increasing the reuse of effluent and desalination (sea water and acid mine drainage), and developing more sustainable management of groundwater resources, in particular for rural areas.

The partnership will deliver 2 primary outputs: first, it will assist the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) in developing sector strategies (agriculture, energy, industry) related to the key areas. Each sector strategy will: identify a pipeline of potential projects and access its collective potential to close the water volume gap if implementation takes place; identify challenges for project replication; and recommend a strategy to overcome challenges, including incentives for widespread adoption and contributions by each stakeholder to enable replication.

Second, the partnership will provide expert support to help the NEPAD Business Foundation (NBF) consult with domestic stakeholders and design these pilot projects. Expertise provided from the WRG network will help NBF to develop joint public-private expert collaborations to structure and take forward the pilot projects and will help to highlight the DWA-WRG partnership at COP 17 in Durban as a practical example of what South Africa is doing to manage its water security and adapt to climate change.

More immediately, the Department is engaged in a large number of projects. Chief among these are the Community Water Fluoridation; Integrated Water Resource Management; Lesotho Highlands Water Project; South African River Health Programme (RHP); Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Water Use; Water Plan for the Western Cape and Working for Water Programme.

Under the moniker “you educate a child you educate a nation”, the Department launched its 2020 VfWEP programme back in 1996 initially in schools within a few provinces, before rolling the education programme across the whole country in 1999, to help educate South Africa on water usage.

The challenge of water conservation and effective management is a major issue and will only become more poignant in time; the Department of Water Affairs continues to work hard to deliver improved services with an eye on the future for South Africa.