WWF and BCG explore how South Africa can reverse its water crisis

21 November 2017 Consultancy.co.za 7 min. read

South Africa is on the verge of a major water shortage according to a new report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature – South Africa (WWF-SA) in collaboration with management consultancy The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The study highlights the consequences of the issue on the broader global community, and examines possible solutions. 

Earlier this year, BCG and WWF-SA held a “Future of Water” workshop in South Africa, attended by various stakeholder groups from all sectors of society. The workshop, which was scenario based, produced four primary goals that the country needs to focus on in the near future.

These include: becoming a water conscious country, which entails widespread awareness of the issue and conservation techniques; implementing strong water governance, in line with the National Development Plan; managing water supply and demand through regulations; and becoming a water smart economy, which entails the introduction of low-water technologies in large industries and farms.

The goals were carefully arrived at through scenario-based discussions. In essence, the stakeholders placed themselves in a number of scenarios that revolve around two major uncertainties plaguing the future of South Africa: the availability of clean water, and the country’s ability to manage it. One example of a scenario is one where there is ample availability of water, but a poor socio-economic state leads to poor management of these resources and excessive wastage of water. Such a scenario involves costs for treating water, increasing inequality due to unequal access, and the consequent social and economic unrest.

South Africa - Water facts

The challenge

According to the report, South Africa is projected to experience physical water scarcity by 2025, and is due to struggle with a water deficit of 17% by 2030. To make matters worse, the country experienced a drought this year, which compounded the trade deficit due to the massive drop in revenues from maize exports.

South Africa is heavily dependent on agriculture, and trouble in the agricultural sector inevitably spells trouble for society and the economy as a whole. The drought cost the sector 37,000 jobs, which drove 50,000 people below the poverty line. Moreover, the hike in food prices resulting from a low crop yield led to high consumer inflation, which in turn led to a drop of two points in the economic growth of the country.

For a country so heavily dependent on agriculture, South Africa receives negligible rainfall. On average, the country receives 490 mm of rainfall annually, which is just over half the global average of 814 mm. Moreover, a large portion of South Africa, i.e. 21%, receives less than 200 mm of rain annually. As a result, 8% of the country’s land provides 50% of its run-off for usage.

Of the limited water available in South Africa, which stands at approximately 49 billion cubic metres, 98% is already earmarked at a relatively high rate, leaving just 2% of the water as a usable source. Meanwhile, a staggering 37% of the water is currently lost due to inefficiencies in the urban infrastructure.

Water availability in selected countries

Climate change is making matters even worse for the country, as temperatures go up and the ground water levels fall. 2016 was a record year in terms of temperatures for South Africa, as the capital of Pretoria reached a record high of 43 degrees Celsius.

Both in terms of the annual rainfall received, as well as the amount of usable water per capita per annum, South Africa ranks amongst the lowest in the world. As mentioned above, the average annual rainfall lies well below the global average at 490mm. As a result, the per capita annual water supply is approximately 843 cubic metres. 

This puts South Africa behind neighbouring countries of Namibia and Botswana, as well as behind developing countries such as India. The stark contrast appears when these levels are compared with those of the USA, which receives 700 mm of annual rainfall and allocates 8,900 cubic metres per capita, or Australia, which receives 500 mm and allocates a mammoth 21,300 cubic metres per capita. 

Drivers for increasing water demand

When examined by sector, the agricultural sector predictably demands the highest amount of water, at 63%, primarily due to irrigation and livestock needs. The municipal sector is the second highest in terms of demand, at 26%, the major uses being gardening, toilets, and personal hygiene. Meanwhile, the industrial sector demands 11% of the water for processing minerals and crops, refining textiles, and other such uses. In total, the demand for water is set to rise at 1% annually till 2030, going up from 15 billion cubic metres in 2016 to 18 billion cubic metres in 2018.

Going forward

At any rate, professionals from BCG as well as WWF-SA, while recognising the gravity of the issue, expressed confidence and in their solutions. Alan Iny, an Associate Director & Senior Global Specialist for Creativity and Scenarios at BCG said in the report, “It has been a pleasure, as BCG's global leader for the scenarios topic, to partner not only with my South African colleagues, but with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the key stakeholders they have brought to the table. I am excited about the 2030 scenarios that we have developed, and the process of thinking through how we might prepare has already broadened perspectives and allowed us to define a series of very specific action items. This will make South Africa's future more robust, whatever lies ahead.”

Meanwhile, Christine Colvin, the Senior Manager for Freshwater at WWF-SA said, “There are real opportunities for South Africa to lead Africa in the transition towards a water-smart economy, with new technologies and enterprise innovations that ensure our water security. But we need to take decisive steps now, and not wait until the next drought.”

Perhaps an economic turnaround might also provide more room for conservation practices. A recent report from Big Four accounting and advisory firm PwC revealed how a number of chief executives in the economy are optimistic about the near future, an optimism that is substantiated by a range of conducive factors.