To reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, people were urged to wash their hands frequently. A common response was: “How can we wash our hands without water?”
Water security is essential for life and livelihoods but COVID-19 has shown that South Africa’s water security is tenuous and declining. If this continues, the next crisis that South Africa faces could be caused by widespread failures of water services.
COVID-19 has shown that South Africa’s water security is tenuous and declining
There are many challenges that need to be addressed:
In rural areas and small towns, water supply and sanitation services are often not fit for purpose. Water supply is erratic and unsafe while sanitation provision is dysfunctional or nonexistent. In such circumstances, not only is it difficult for the people in the communities concerned to adopt recommended COVID-19 hygiene practices but they are left vulnerable to many other water-related diseases.
However, the problems go much wider. As Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ experience showed, even our major urban and industrial hubs are vulnerable. If there is a similar drought in the interior of the country over the next decade, Cape Town’s crisis could be repeated on an even larger scale. This would threaten the services on which tens of millions of people depend. But it will also impact on energy supplies, industry and agriculture, undermining the economic base on which all social life depends.
COVID-19 will leave South Africa even poorer and weaker than it was prior to the crisis. If the vulnerabilities in the water sector are not effectively addressed, the resulting failures will further aggravate unemployment and poverty. Post-COVID plans must therefore be prioritised to tackle the right issues in the right way to put the country back onto a more sustainable development path.
The South African Academy of Engineering brings together many of South Africa’s most eminent engineers as part of a global network. Advisory Note 1 below presents our initial findings and recommendations on priority strategic infrastructure investments for water security. It is addressed to government and everyone who wants to help South Africa recover from this crisis and achieve long term resilience and sustainable development. Our overriding message is that, unless we move forward in partnership to fix the country’s water sector, our future is at risk.
Global wisdom is that, post-disaster, it is important to ‘build better’, to learn from the experiences gained and to build societies that are more resilient to future disasters. In that spirit we suggest the following four high-level priorities for action:-
- Prioritise strategic investments to implement an urgent infrastructure development programme effectively and efficiently to create jobs, promote economic activity, and sustain the water security of key urban and industrial centres;
- Halt the destructive cycle of wasteful investment and incompetent management in our municipalities as failure to sustain water and sanitation services is leaving communities frustrated, impoverished and vulnerable to disease;
- Rebuild the nation’s water management institutions by developing and empowering a new cadre of water resource planners and managers to monitor, guide and manage the use of the country’s scarce water resources;
- Work with citizens to improve water management by sharing information on the state of our services and natural resources and mobilising local action to address local problems.
We believe that partnerships between the public, private and professional sectors can drive effective action on these priorities. The Fellows of SAAE are available to support the Ministers of Water and Sanitation and Cooperative Government and their local and national partners to “build better” and achieve these common goals.
Read the full Advisory Note here.