Home|[in] focus|Water Security in South Africa: The Calm before the Storm?
Categories: [in] focus

by Simphiwe Mongwe


Categories: [in] focus

by Simphiwe Mongwe



In the present international arena, water scarcity is an ongoing fear that needs special attention. Threats like terrorism that require states to always be on guard regarding military security have been re-evaluated according to the changing structure of the international system.  The broadening of the concept of security has seen it expand beyond military security to include sectors such as economic security, energy security, food security, societal security and environmental security. Threats will continue to emerge, particularly when faced with the scarcity of natural resources and it is up to the states in the international arena to keep up with the geopolitical trends and make the vital steps towards confronting and influencing change. There has been growing focus on natural resources and security, including the linkage between scarcity of environmental resources and social conflicts and its implications for sustainable development. As such, water scarcity, as a security threat, demands critical engagement on the part of policy makers from both government and nongovernmental spheres given worrying statistics on the scale of the problem. For instance, water demand is expected to exceed supply in South Africa by 17% in 2030.

Water security is understood as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development…and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”. This highlights the importance of water security in a developing country- beyond just having access to drinking water, while emphasizing the linkages between water, food, energy and ecosystems. South Africa’s economy is partly reinforced by its agricultural capacity, and with the drought and political instability it has affected food production.   

South Africa still remains one of the most developed states in Africa, but like a number of African states corruption, poor leadership and political blame games continue to hinder progress towards fulfilling certain policies. The current water insecurity in South Africa is a challenge that signals alarms of what is to come in the future; but attention to the water issue has been underwhelming with limited discourse in the public sphere and even less political will. In conjunction to this, the major challenge of the South African Government in recent times has been to develop and maintain appropriate policies to protect South African water resources.

The recent events in Cape Town are an indication of ‘The calm before the storm’, with reference to the fast-approaching water crisis. Despite the urgency of the issue, poor leadership and politics interfered, raising the issue of the preparedness of both local and national government and their capacity to adequately address the problem. A theoretical Day Zero was predicted years ago but confusion and disconnect clouded the city of Cape Town and a functional plan was not set to avoid its occurrence. Western Cape is just one of many regions affected by the shortage of water, while some argue that the Cape Town crisis was driven more by politics than drought. Regions such as the Eastern Cape are even more affected by the water crisis due to continuous drought, while a majority of the Limpopo villages have struggled to get running water for years. Kwazulu-Natal region is also experiencing water insecurities due to the lack of action and droughts that plagued various areas, and so the water crisis must be managed nationally instead of just in the affected regions. Government has set strategies in motion to address the threat to water security, for instance the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan, and partnered with international agencies and institutions in setting up programmes aimed at sustainable water management. The water crisis within South Africa has proved that there is disconnect between the political leadership and the experts on environmental and water security, making it a challenge in making informed decisions. The South African Water Caucus’ (SAWC) damning report demonstrated the poor leadership, political instability, corruption and failings of the Department of Water and Sanitation.

The water crisis is as much a political concern as it is a public issue, despite the situation in the Cape Town water crisis being made out to be more political. In Limpopo, there are signs of poor management of resources and infrastructure, despite millions of rands having been invested to build dams to manage the water crisis. Political leaders fail to inform the public about the effects of climate change and its connection to the already limited South African water resources,  choosing instead to focus on priming their image for upcoming elections. The political response to climate change; environmental, water and food security needs to change to better manage the water insecurities.

Ultimately, South African water insecurities will continue to be a problem due to the water scarcity, poor leadership and growing population. South Africa forms part of a number of bilateral and multilateral partnerships in Africa; however, South Africa has failed to optimise the expertise and support they receive through international partnerships. The question now is whether South Africa can put its current policies on water security into action to better manage the brewing water crisis, and be one of the influential leaders of water management regionally. Subsequent articles in this series on the geopolitics of water security will analyse SADC policies and prospects towards water security and their implications for water governance in the broader African continent.

Mr Simphiwe Mongwe holds a BA Hons in Politics and International Relations from University of Johannesburg and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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