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South Africa's new water and sanitation master plan

  • South Africa's new water and sanitation master plan
    Large scale experimental systems that filter and clean contaminated water from an informal settlement near Franschhoek.
  • By Kevin Winter. 

About the entity

University of Cape Town
The University of Cape Town (UCT) is South Africa's oldest university, and is one of Africa's leading teaching and research institutions.

The much anticipated National Water and Sanitation Master Plan was launched on Thursday, 28 November, by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. The plan is a comprehensive collection of actions and schedule that aims to address backlogs in infrastructure investment, institutional reform in water resource management and the required capital and financial investment.

The plan starts with an incredibly frank description of the state of the water affairs in South Africa. It is refreshing in its honesty and gives a sobering account in explaining why urgent actions are long overdue. The master plan, dubbed Operation Phakisa – meaning ‘hurry up’ – is a clarion call to get things moving today, if not yesterday.

There are four parts to the plan:

  • a long list of urgent actions that are necessary over the next 10 years or more
  • a ‘textbook’ on the current state of South Africa’s water resources, responsible institutions and governance
  • a schedule of actions including why these were achieved or not
  • an overview of water in the South African economy.

In her own words (read the full speech), Minister Sisulu outlines the challenge as such:

“Our water security can only be guaranteed by a combination of a great game plan, smart technology and know-how, superb human capital in the water and sanitation sector, great research and information systems, a sound legislative and policy environment, a highly functional and coordinated institutional ecosystem and, most of all, a water wise South Africa”.

The success of the master plan will also be dependent on how well tertiary institutions can offer programmes, curricula, research and training to support Operation Phakisa.

If the quotation is rephrased in the negative, there is no guarantee that South Africa will become water secure without a combination of research, the ability to apply knowledge, secure human capital that offers functional leadership and management, and without an educated public. The success of the master plan will also be dependent on how well tertiary institutions can offer programmes, curricula, research and training to support Operation Phakisa.

Enabling the next generation of water professionals

Typically, and for obvious reasons, the South African water sector is dominated by engineering and technical disciplines, but the sector has not presented a career path for young students with interests in other disciplines, such as physical, health, legal, economic and social sciences. Arguably, a modern, well-resourced water sector thrives on a far greater mix of expertise from personnel from different disciplinary interests and skills.

The South Africa water sector will have to compete much harder to attract a younger generation who are eyeing opportunities and career paths in new and emerging fields, such as computer science, bioinformatics, data science and artificial intelligence systems, some of which are becoming increasing attractive to social scientists because of their interest in human and social behaviour.

The Department of Water and Sanitation needs to be clear about the kinds of skills and capacities that are required to support Operation Phakisa and also needs to acknowledge that it will take more than a marketing pitch to encourage a young generation to enter into water and sanitation as a career option.

Phakisa has to be the game changer in driving new opportunities and careers in the water sector

Phakisa has to be the game changer in driving new opportunities and careers in the water sector, but it will also need to adopt an approach that values young water professionals and their role in building a secure water future. The challenge should not be underestimated – losing trained young water professionals to other countries at hugely discounted rates is not acceptable.

Research that matters in a national project

Innovation in water technologies seldom finds its way into the market place. There are many reasons for this inertia and even failure, including limited financial support, a lack of incubation facilities and test sites, and a poor understanding of market needs.

There are only a handful of dedicated water and sanitation experimental sites across the country. One example is the Water Hub in Franschhoek, which is a dedicated research site managed by UCT and partners. The hub is currently building nature-based solutions in the treatment of contaminated surface water from an informal settlement and using this water to safely irrigate vegetables, resulting in significant social impacts for the urban poor.

UCT students doing water analysis at the Water Hub in Franschhoek

Test sites offer multiple benefits to institutes of higher learning because they have the potential to raise interest and inspire students to explore combinations of ideas and to test these ideas in a ‘plug and play’ space that accepts trial-and-error experiments, critical learning skills and practical application in solving problems.

It is not clear from the master plan how the Water Research Act of 1971 will be amended. The Act led to the establishment of the Water Research Commission, which became one of the largest funders of water research in South Africa. Nearly 50 years later, perhaps it is time that an amendment to the Act should reshape the research and institutional environment to align more closely with the national emergency that will keep the master plan on track.

In general, the Department of Water and Sanitation doesn’t listen too closely to the research community, and vice versa. That needs to change and amending the Act could be a good place to start.

‘Phakisa’ empa u be Bohlale

The Water and Sanitation Master Plan is an ambitious attempt to put South Africa back on track to achieve sustainable water security.

Currently millions of South Africans do not have access to safe water and decent sanitation. Thousands are living in distressed municipalities and are reliant on water supplies that are unsafe at worst and intermittent at best. Hundreds of farmers are unable to make ends meet because of an unreliable water supply. Parts of the country are already running dry and by 2030 it is estimated that there will be a 17% water supply deficit.

There is a new appreciation for the urgency, but haste without wisdom – bohlale – most often has unintended consequences.

Thousands are living in distressed municipalities and are reliant on water supplies that are unsafe at worst and intermittent at best

Tertiary institutions cannot escape the reality of an unfolding national crisis. The master plan is a call for a serious conversation about how institutions of higher education will meet the water and sanitation challenge that is already upon us.

There is a public obligation to build capacity and interests of the younger generation by establishing a progressive teaching, learning and research environment that is responsive to the national emergency in water and its interconnection with all life in South Africa and on the planet.

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