“Time is running out. There has been too much inertia. Business as usual must be left behind. We need global scale co-operation and a sustainable co-operative spirit.”
This was the opinion expressed by Prof. Janos Bogardi of the Centre for Development Research at the University of Bonn who was addressing STIAS fellows on the current situation regarding water worldwide.
“Water is life,” he continued. “While this statement has universal validity it does not emphasise enough how much and how directly human existence, well-being and socioeconomic development depend on the availability of and the way we manage water.”
“Adult humans are 50% water and humans can only survive three days without water. We die if we lose 15 to 25% of our water content.”
“Water is a limited resource. Water and sanitation are human rights. However, there is a gap in the international water debate. The different discourses, like the right to water versus water as economic good; water security and sustainability; the water, food and energy nexus; and, ecosystem services versus engineering solutions are drifting apart rather than evolving towards consensus solutions.”
Because water has always been seen as a free natural resource it has been managed by different governance mechanisms.
“The problem is that everybody wants water for free – it’s seen as a gift from God – so far we haven’t had to fight for water.”
Bogardi described the period since World War II as the period of “acceleration of human enterprise” with corresponding growth in population, extended life expectancy, industrial and agricultural production.
“However, the benefits are not equally shared and ‘acceleration’ is creating winners and losers making modern societies increasingly vulnerable.”
He highlighted some figures – the world population increased three-fold in the 20th century with a six-fold increase in water usage and a 75% reduction in pasture lands. An estimated 3 billion people are living where water is available while 2 billion are already living in water-stressed areas.
About 4 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation.
“Basically 84% of the world’s population has 50% of the water.”
“The population explosion is the biggest problem along with urbanisation and migration,” he added.
“Africa is the most rapidly urbanising continent. By 2050 it will have a 5 to 6 times larger population than Europe. Urbanisation is also not necessarily development driven but rather the result of the push from rural areas. An estimated 60% of the urban population in Africa live in slums.”
“The international water discourse has not led yet to a breakthrough as far as conducive political and policy reorientation towards global water governance is concerned.”
“Sustainable Development Goal 6 points to clean water and sanitation. But some of its targets have unrealistic deadlines, there is oversimplification of the indicators at national level and no budgetary provision,” he said.
“The interlinkages and trade-offs between the SDGs were also not fully considered. Good progress in implementing the SDGs is the litmus test of UN-based global governance but we are already running out of time.”
“The hidden dimension is water quality – including things like untreated sewerage, waste, heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues and bacteria. Even where we have water it can’t be used for the purposes you want it for.”
Cape Town must reduce consumption
Turning specifically to the Cape Town situation, Bogardi pointed out that Level 5 water rationing was introduced in November with a limit of 87 litres per person per day. “However, according to local media reports, the population is still consuming about 25% more than that.”
“It is described as the most severe drought since 1904. It started in 2015 and already one full year of rainfall is missing. The biggest loser is the agricultural sector.”
“Cape Town needs to tighten its belt and reduce consumption. It will take at least three years of good rain – which is unlikely – to get things even slightly close to normal.”
“The social consequences will probably outpace the physical ones with higher food prices and more unemployment.” he added.
He also added that South Africa has world class legislation, facilities and water-management capacities. “The problem is implementation. Legislation is only as good as implementation.”
In discussion he warned against implementing solutions that only treat the symptoms and not the root causes. He indicated that desalination, for example, is feasible for coastal communities but only for drinking water not for large-scale use. “The by-product is toxic brine from the salt which is deposited back into the sea and could seriously disrupt or even kill aquatic life, unless disposed of very carefully.”
“Also if you destroy aquifers you cannot remedy the situation quickly or cheaply. Surface waters pose different, and slightly easier problems – but the consequences of say 30 years of neglect, as a rule of thumb, would take at least 30 years to rehabilitate – there are no quick fixes.”
He emphasised the interlinked nature of water and the fact that a solution in one part of the world can have dire consequences elsewhere. “What you do can hurt others and therefore finally you.”
“Unfortunately we are at a point where we probably ‘need’ massive disasters as reminders that the current system is not working.”
He warned the developing world not to copy technologies that created some of the problems in the first place.
He also pointed out that the speed of technological development means we need to be flexible.
“Technological development means that the projected paradigms can quickly become irrelevant,” he said. “We need to do things that can be changed as the possibilities change.”
“It’s my hope that a new generation of young people will look differently at the problem – a new look is needed. The solution is not to just drill a hole and pump water.”
During his fellowship at STIAS, Prof. Bogardi is working on a handbook on water resource management which aims to provide comprehensive, concise and critical reading material for all communities involved in the different water debates. It’s hoped that the book will allow scientific communities to engage more deeply in the international discourse. It will be published by Springer.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photographs: Christoff Pauw