(MENAFN - Gulf Times) About a decade ago, at a meeting of South African mayors convened by
Lindiwe Hendricks, South Africa's then-minister of water and
environmental affairs, we predicted that an unprecedented water crisis
would hit one of the country's main cities within 15 years, unless
water-management practices were improved significantly. That prediction
has now come true, with Cape Town facing a shutdown of its piped water
network. The question now is whether African leaders will allow our
other projection that, within the next 25-30 years, many more of the
continent's cities will be facing similar crises to materialise.
Africa has long struggled with urban water and wastewater management. As
the continent's population has swelled, from about 285mn in 1960 to
nearly 1.3bn today, and urbanisation has progressed, the challenge has
become increasingly acute. And these trends are set to intensify: by
2050, the continent's total population is expected to exceed 2.5bn, with
55% living in urban environments.
The challenge African countries face may not be unique, but it is, in
some ways, unprecedented. After all, in Western countries, urbanisation
took place over a much longer period, and against a background of
steadily improving economic conditions. In building effective systems
for water and wastewater management, cities had adequate investment
funds and the relevant expertise.
In Africa, cities' financial and management capacities are already
overwhelmed. As a result, water and wastewater management has often
fallen by the wayside, with policymakers focusing on water-related
issues only when droughts and floods occur. The Third World Centre for
Water Management estimates that only about 10-12% of Africa's population
has access to adequate domestic and industrial wastewater collection,
treatment, and disposal.
Given that the construction of the infrastructure and systems required
to meet African cities' water needs is likely to take some 20-30 years,
governments' sustained commitment is essential. A key imperative is the
development of more environmentally friendly systems for wastewater
disposal, as is cleaning bodies of water within and around urban centres
that are already heavily contaminated.
Such an effort must be based on a comprehensive approach to assessing
water quality that covers a wide range of pollutants far more than the
10-40 that most African utilities now monitor with the expectation
that new pollutants will be added as they emerge. Cities like Singapore
now regularly monitor 336 water quality parameters to ensure water
safety. To that end, Africa will need access to the relevant expertise,
adequate funding, and well-run laboratories all of which are currently
in short supply.
Funding such efforts will not be easy. For one thing, official
corruption has long undermined investment in the planning, design, and
construction of water infrastructure, as well as the effective
management of existing infrastructure. For another, the social value of
water including its central role in many African religions has long
limited governments' ability to create a viable funding model for water
Though countries are often eager to trade resources like oil, gas,
minerals, timber, and agricultural products, no country in the world
sells its water to other countries. Canada approved the North American
Free Trade Agreement only after its parliament confirmed that the
agreement would not apply to water in its natural state. In federal
countries like India and Pakistan, even individual provinces refuse to
consider giving water to their neighbours.
Countries don't make much money from water domestically, either. In
2001, South Africa introduced a 'Free Basic Water Policy, according to
which all households, regardless of size or income, receive six
kilolitres (1,585 gallons) of water per month at no cost. One might
argue that this is because water is necessary for survival. But so is
food. And while both water and food are guaranteed in South Africa's
constitution, only water is provided for free.
And South Africa is no anomaly. In most urban centres worldwide, water
is free or highly subsidised, and politicians are reluctant to change
that. Singapore's water price did not rise at all from 2000 to 2016, and
Hong Kong's water prices haven't changed since 1996, even as the price
of everything else has risen.
While water obviously shouldn't become an expensive luxury good,
governments' reluctance to charge appropriately for it has undermined
their ability to invest in water utilities, including proper wastewater
collection and treatment. Far from levelling the playing field, this has
made urban water management in most cities less equitable, because the
state is unable to provide the necessary services in an efficient,
sustainable, or comprehensive way.
When Cape Town's water network is shut down because reservoirs have
become dangerously low probably on July 9 residents will have to
stand in line at one of 200 water-collection points, in order to collect
25 litres per person per day. That task will be particularly hard on
poor and otherwise vulnerable people.
As South Africa's politicians and media debate the causes of this
crisis, they often focus on climate change a culprit that cannot talk
back. But the fact is that the dismal state of urban water management
exemplified by the fact that 36% of the water in South African cities is
either lost due to leakage or not paid for, compared to 3.7% in Tokyo
and 8% in Phnom Penh remains a leading reason for the shutdown.
Managing urban water is not rocket science. Solutions have been well
known for decades, and the needed technology, expertise, and even funds
are available. What has been missing is political will, sustained public
demand, and continuous media scrutiny. Cape Town's crisis should serve
as a wake-up call for all of Africa. Unfortunately, like Africa's water
resources, it is most likely to be wasted. Project Syndicate
* Asit K Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew
School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Cecilia
Tortajada is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy,
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.