Electricity scarcity likely to be followed by water

  • clive lipchin
While load shedding may deprive us of electricity on a day-to-day basis, the damage it’s doing to the water infrastructure may be irreparable.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Feb 13, 2020

Unless we learn how to manage our utilities responsibly, South Africa’s water infrastructure will go the same way as electricity, and it could be too late to do anything about it.

This was one of several frightening observations made last week by Dr Clive Lipchin, the director of the Israel Center for Transboundary Water Management and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

Lipchin, a South African expat who made aliyah to Israel in 1991, brings together water professionals and policy makers across Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan on issues of water conservation and education.

“I’m here to further the discussion to find a positive, non-political connection between Israel and South Africa,” Lipchin told the SA Jewish Report. “The two countries share similar environmental challenges. Israel has, to some degree, been able to rise above them, and there’s an opportunity for conversation on an issue to which everyone can relate.”

Lipchin’s visit coincides with the release of a report he compiled that outlines the South African experience, stressing that it’s in our interest to look to Israel for potential lessons that can be replicated in South Africa.

His visit, arranged by the South African Friends of The Hebrew University, included various talks to the community and engagement with relevant stakeholders across the country. He is meeting university academics and the deputy mayor of Cape Town to establish points of mutual interest between Israel and South Africa on the basis of water conservation.

“The Cape Town water crisis has slipped from the media and people’s minds,” he says. “The water demand has gone up again, and conservation has slipped because the dams are full. Cape Town is good today, but the next drought is coming, and it’s not ready for it.

“We can’t rely on rain alone anymore. We need to make better use of the water we have.”

Lipchin highlighted the areas in which South Africa could make meaningful changes to its water distribution and treatment.

One of the biggest water challenges in South Africa concerns rural areas. “The rural population has been experiencing water scarcity for decades,” says Lipchin. “Much can be done to establish an effective approach to delivering it to people in these areas. There is a whole population that has been suffering a lack of water and proper sanitation which has been largely ignored by the government.”

This is an issue to which Lipchin devotes himself back in Israel, where he has worked closely with less affluent groups like Bedouin and Palestinian communities whom he says share a likeness with the local rural populations.

“Their reality and the rural reality in South Africa are not that different,” he says. “They’re both low-income populations dependent on some level of subsistence-based agriculture. What worked in Israel could possibly be adapted to South Africa.”

Unfortunately, a lack of effective governance impedes any progress.

“The South African government is digging its heels in, and isn’t really adopting any technology from the outside. Moreover, there’s a lack of capacity to deliver what’s needed.”

Lipchin says that Israel has scrapped the model of placing water management under the purvey of municipalities, replacing it with regional public water utilities committed strictly to water management and sanitation. “We have an independent water commissioner that has government backing and public trust,” he says.

“If such a person could be found in South Africa, it would go a long way. You need someone independent of government who is given a mandate to work without interference, capable of raising the funds needed for water by making sure that the money is limited to water expenditure only.”

According to Lipchin, the tension between water as a human right and as an economic good is experienced across the globe. While no person can be denied water, it costs money to provide, and reconciling both is extremely difficult, especially in South Africa.

“Most of the population here is low-income, meaning they cannot pay the true cost of water. At the same time, the government cannot deny them water. Somebody has to pay for those who cannot,” he says.

“You can have the best water technology, but if there’s no financial model in place with it, it won’t go anywhere. You need a model that requires even a low-income population to pay, even if it’s symbolic. It’s extremely difficult in South Africa.”

Complicating matters further is the damage caused by load shedding, and Lipchin stresses that energy and water are two sides of the same coin.

“The water infrastructure is ageing, and issues like leakage are problematic as it is,” he says. “Load shedding makes it worse because of what it does to pumps and reservoirs. The water and energy sectors are interdependent and need to be managed together. When the power goes down and pumps go off, that’s when sewage flows into the environment. It’s a public-health risk, and an environmental problem.

Lipchin says that discussion about load shedding should be had from a water perspective. “Perhaps then people will be more aware. It’s not just that the lights have gone off, but that my water supply is at risk.”

Although he recognises the contextual differences, Lipchin believes that South Africa can look to Israel for inspiration in resolving water issues.

“There are technical, financial, and managerial solutions which can be implemented to address the problem,” he says. “However, it’s only once South Africa has its own house in order that it can start implementing any changes.”

Rather than look at expensive technology, Lipchin suggests that to begin with, water metering and leak detection systems should be employed.

“Any water user should know how much water they’re using, and what they’re paying,” he says. “This relates to leaks, because if you’re suddenly charged more than usual, the chances are that there’s a leak nearby.

“Joburg is probably losing at any given time 30%-40% of its water to leaks alone. Detecting and fixing leaks is much easier and cheaper than a solution like desalination, which is really a last resort.”

Finding money for enhanced technology comes later, he says. “The first real step is trust between the government and the community. Most water scarcity is not because of water, it’s a result of policy and management decisions. Once that foundation of trust exists, one starts working with existing resources before trying to ‘make’ more water.”

He stresses the need for civil society to get engaged, and hold government accountable.

Whether South Africa ultimately chooses Israeli technology or that of Germany or Australia is irrelevant, says Lipchin. What matters is starting the conversation.

“South Africa needs to bring it out into the open. These problems are solvable, and it may take 10 years to do it, but if the conversation begins, you’re turning the corner.”

“People don’t often appreciate water. They appreciate it when they don’t have it. We don’t want water to get to the point that electricity finds itself now. We need to realise that there are already South Africans who don’t get water consistently, and start treating water differently.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Simon Berg 14 Feb
    If I recall correctly the organization Friends of the Hebrew University was placed on a proposed boycott list. Why does Israel offer its services that being the case. Before this move were to take place there needs to be acknowledgment of of this together with a profound apology. Nothing will be gained for Israel were it to go forward in this respect and it would be naiveto think so.

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