The fact that Cape Town may soon run out of water has dominated the press and captured the attention of the public. While the reality that Cape Town may be the first major city in the world to run out of water, one advantage is that we are now focusing our minds on solutions. All South Africans should pull together in solidarity to help Cape Town in any way they can.
However, water crises are not new in South Africa. Millions of citizens living in informal settlements and in the country’s townships have been living with the reality of water scarcity for years. As Cape Town residents are asking themselves how they will manage on 25 or 50 litres per day, this has been a reality for those living in the townships and other informal settlements have been living this way for a long time. Julius Malema recently drew attention to this point at his fourth Plenum report-back. Malema argued that whilst there is much focus on Cape Town, in places like Giyani and Blouberg Municipality in Limpopo, dead animals could be found in the reservoirs and where people were frequently without water. He said, “South Africa has a problem with water. Black people have stayed without water for a very long time. They are still without water today. They don’t know what Day Zero is because they have never had Day One in their lives.”
Referring to ways of tackling the challenge he said, “Israel has got solutions. They are saying that in Israel, where there is generally a lack of water, they created water out of nothing and that they can create water in Cape Town. Let’s see if it is real… anyone with a solution for water which is permanent must start in Giyani, in Blouberg.”
Malema has a point. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that has enshrined water as a basic human right in its constitution. But actually supplying this water to each and every citizen is a task that requires efficient government planning, financial resources and appropriate technologies. The difference of course is that Cape Town is facing a crisis of water preservation whilst Giyani and other parts of the country are facing a crisis of water provision. A competent and comprehensive national water approach should be able address both these challenges concurrently. South Africa’s context of a developed water infrastructure operating in a developing socioeconomic condition makes this task more difficult but not impossible.
The South African example is not, however, unique. Many towns and villages in the Palestinian West Bank and in Bedouin communities in Israel face a similar challenge to water supply. One of the greatest challenges that these communities in the Middle East and South Africa share is access to water and sewage infrastructure. Installing water and sewer networks in complex urban and semi-rural environments such as in the townships is a very expensive undertaking and often times fraught with political and cultural complexity. Nevertheless, there are solutions.
Israel is often seen as a water pioneer that has successfully led the country to resolve its water scarcity problems. At a national level this is mostly correct, but there are still many communities in Israel that lack access to water and sewage treatment. One such example is the Bedouin of the Negev desert. Many Bedouin communities struggle to meet their basic water needs.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel works closely with both Bedouin and Palestinian communities to leverage Israeli innovations in desalination for potable water and wastewater reclamation for agriculture at a community level. The Institute provides onsite sewage treatment and greywater recycling systems that treat sewage and provide water for irrigation thus improving the economic conditions of the communities. This works by shifting local agriculture from subsistence based to income generation based due to increases in crop yields thanks to the availability of more water for farming. There is also a focus on using solar energy, as a means to desalinate brackish groundwater that otherwise would be too salty for irrigation. Installation of solar PV power stations also helps to provide clean and renewable energy for groundwater pumping. All of these technological interventions are carried out with support from the communities themselves with maximum local participation and has been effective as tools to assist marginalized communities meet their water needs.
Such interventions can even be applied in highly fraught political circumstances as one finds in South African local councils. One often reads about the Israeli Palestinian conflict over water. And while there are serious disagreements over water needs and water rights between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there are also many examples of cooperation over water between Israeli and Palestinian communities despite the political complexities as the projects of the Arava Institute testify.
The challenges for places like Giyani are considerable but the solutions are out there. By using innovative, grass roots measures, South Africa’s marginalized communities can become more water secure.
Dr. Clive Lipchin is a South African-born Israeli citizen who directs the Centre for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel. He is currently in South Africa undertaking research on the country’s water crisis.