Adobe Stock image purchased by Royal HaskoningDHV

I’m sure most people have heard of the phrase “after the drought comes the flood”. It implies that drought precedes floods, which is a well-known sequence of events around the world. But I can’t help wondering: what then precedes the drought? Could we have done anything differently to avoid a drought from affecting the lives of millions of people?

In the South African context, there is no easy answer to that question because it’s a combination of things that together creates a perfect storm. According to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2019, four environmental risks dominate the top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood and impact, and ‘water crisis’ is among these. The other risks are extreme weather events, natural disasters and, importantly, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

Firstly, in South Africa, much of the water infrastructure is aging fast. In addition, the maintenance and repair of critical infrastructure is often neglected. As a result, the existing infrastructure is inadequate in many places; and Non-Revenue Water (NRW) losses through factors such as leaks and pipe bursts account for a significant amount of water never reaching the end-users.

Secondly, South Africa is already a chronically water stressed country with an average annual rainfall of approximately 460mm being well below the world’s average of 860mm. Rain also falls unevenly in different parts of the country and in different seasons, often not where and when it is needed most.

Adobe Stock image purchased by Royal HaskoningDHV

Water supply issues can thus not be solved by simply building more dams or creating more infrastructure. Moving forward, smart water solutions will rely heavily on rehabilitating, conserving and maintaining the natural areas which form the critical catchments and ‘water factories’ of the country. Moreover, efficient operational management of our supply systems and treatment works, and effective use and re-use of this valuable resource, will be key to mitigating the impact of drought in the future.

The UN Water theme for World Water Day on 22 March 2020, ‘Water and Climate Change’, is therefore spot on. It acknowledges water as the single most important element for adaptation, because water availability impacts every aspect of human society from food security and public health to political instability and climate migration.

Our region needs to think innovatively about ways of reducing water demand and making water available outside of the traditional engineering solutions of infrastructure development, if it wishes to boost economic growth and maintain healthy freshwater ecosystems. Water reuse and water resource recovery remains one of the highest potential game-changers in building true resilience to droughts and improved water use efficiency in urban and industrial environments. In short, we must become a lot ‘smarter’ in how we (re)use and manage our water within our countries and across geographical boundaries.

Political and economic will is pivotal to achieving this. Water connects, it doesn’t separate – what manifests itself as a regional or local crisis quickly becomes a global problem. Water crises affect economies of all sizes. Climate change models are predicting significant changes to both rainfall and temperature in Southern Africa, which will affect water storage negatively, so the pressure on water as a resource is only likely to increase.

Smarter solutions for planning, operating and maintaining water infrastructure and assets are critical to mitigating the impacts of water crises moving forward, and to building resilience for our societies and economies. Fortunately, global expertise and digital innovations are now at hand to support this mitigation, adaptation and, ultimately, Resilience.

And let us not forget, after a drought…