Wars Over Water are Rising Issue-
Business Day (Johannesburg)
August 19, 2002
NEARLY half the world's population
will experience critical water shortages by 2025, according
to the United Nations (UN). Areas of SA are highly likely
to be among those facing increasingly frequent water shortages.
Wars over access to water are a rising possibility in
What makes the water issue particularly
urgent is that demand for water will grow increasingly
fast as larger areas are placed under crops and economic
development. The strong possibility that the world is
experiencing climate change also adds to this urgency.
How to deal with water shortages is
in the forefront of the battle between environmental activists
on the one hand and governments and construction firms
on the other. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development
activists will be continuing their campaign to halt dam
construction, while many governments are outraged about
a vocal minority thwarting their plans.
The controversy over water in the
halls of the Sandton Convention Centre, where world leaders
will meet, will be tame when compared to the storm that
environmentalists intend to build up on the outside.
One of the UN's eight millennium development
goals is to halve the proportion of people without "sustainable"
access to safe drinking water by 2015. How to ensure this
happens is one of the big issues of the summit.
Much of the text on this is already
agreed, but one of the unresolved issues in the implementation
plan is whether the goal on water will be extended to
cover sanitation. The risks posed by water-borne diseases
in the absence of sanitation facilities means the two
goals are closely related.
US negotiators have been resisting
the extension of goals to include sanitation due to the
financial commitment this would entail. However, insiders
say the US is highly likely to agree to this extension.
Agreement on this could give the UN a chance to show that
in one key area the world development agenda has been
advanced in Johannesburg.
But the UN has said Johannesburg will
not be about words alone, but implementation. A number
of projects and funding initiatives are likely to be unveiled
at the Waterdome side event to the summit. But implementation
is always harder, as SA has experienced in its water programme.
Since the 1994 elections government
has provided easy access to water to 7-million people,
but extending this to a further 7million and ensuring
this progress is sustainable is one of SA's foremost implementation
challenges. In SA, access to water is defined as 25 litres
a person daily, within a distance of 200m from where they
Although SA's feat far exceeds the
UN millennium goal on water supply, severe constraints
on local government capacity make a more rapid expansion
difficult says the water affairs department.
For some of those who have only recently
been given ready access to water, their gains are under
threat as the number of cut-offs by municipalities for
nonpayment rise, says Liane Greef of the Environmental
Monitoring Group. Greef is programme manager for Water
Justice in southern Africa.
Those who have their water supply
cut off also automatically forfeit their right to 6000
free litres of water for a family a month under SA's "water
for all" policy. In the face of continued increases in
unemployment, payment for water and other utilities has
the potential to fast undo government's high profile feats
in delivery since 1994.
It is also the way of ensuring sufficient
water supply and its management that will increasingly
become a political battleground in SA. Water Affairs director-general
Mike Muller says SA is near the end of its dam-building
programme. However, there are big projects proposed elsewhere
in southern Africa that could possibly be halted by activists
who could bring pressure on funding agencies such as the
Greef says her group will campaign
during the summit against the proposed Skuifraam Dam which
would be built near Franschhoek to supply additional water
to Cape Town.
Rather than rely on new dam construction,
the city should ensure that water is used wisely at all
times rather than only in dry spells, Greef says.
Another battleground for her group
is over the privatisation of water supply, she says. Water
supply, she insists, is best handled in the public interest
by accountable government.
There is increasing hope from advances
in technology to deal with water shortages. It is agricultural
production which takes up about 90% of water consumed
for human purposes, says the UN.
To lower agricultural demand for water
the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute
is researching ways of obtaining "more crop per drop"
through the development of drought resistant crops, as
well as through better water management techniques.
One of the institute's research sites
is the Limpopo River basin. According to the institute's
director-general, Frank Rijsbereman, rice growers in China
use a quarter of the water a ton of produce to those in
The institute hopes the "green revolution"
in crop productivity will soon be matched by the "blue
revolution" in raising water productivity in agriculture.