Water Security in South Africa: The need to build social and ecological resilience

Tackling South African water insecurity will require addressing the technical deficiencies, governance gaps and social inequality that are currently having a dangerous and environmentally devastating impact. The links between environmental health and socio-political stability are clear in South Africa, where there has been an exponential increase in violent protests over poor or privatized service delivery, social marginalization, and unequal access to water. South Africa must act  to solidify the links between resilient societies and resilient ecosystems.

Rural water pump near Ulundi, South Africa. Source: Trevor Samson / World Bank (via Flickr)

Rural water pump near Ulundi, South Africa. Source: Trevor Samson / World Bank (via Flickr)

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unveiled the third and final Working Groupreport from its from its landmark Fifth Assessment. This, together with the Second Working Group Report released on 31 March, 2014, is required reading for those wishing to examine the societal impacts of climate change and the potential pathways for twenty-first century resilience. For the first time, the IPCC included a chapter on human security. This is a significant achievement that should increase understanding of the increased threat and impacts on individual livelihoods that climate change is bringing, particularly in the developing world. It is clear that the connections between environmental security and human security run deep, but it is less clear just how societies can build resilience and whether the political will exists to pursue it.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that these challenges manifest themselves uniquely across the world. Due to factors of geography, history, politics, and social development, each region and country experiences climate change in a distinctive way. For Africa, the picture is predictably bleak. The region as a whole has contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, faces some of the worst consequences of climate change, and has the weakest capacity to cope with the impacts.

The country of South Africa provides a fascinating example of how difficult building ecological resilience can be. Already the 30th driest country in the world, it is expected to experience further drying trends, and an increase in extreme weather events, including cycles of extreme drought and sudden excessive rains. In relative terms, the country has in fact been a significant contributor to global climate change due to its energy-intensive economy. As such, the country has a global responsibility to engage fully with the IPCC reports and begin developing robust responses to environmental insecurity. However, doing so presents major challenges for a country that remains a “dual economy” with one of the highest rates of income inequality (and inequality of opportunity) in the world.

This is all the more troubling given the country’s progressive stance on environmental issues. In fact, environmental security has been, and will remain, a vital component of the evolving South African identity following the end of apartheid in 1994. The issue of environmental security in South Africa is one that has for years resonated across diverse sections of the population. There are strong cultures of conservation and environmentalism running throughout the country. However, the “Rainbow Nation” continues to suffer from sustained environmental degradation in ways that alter the natural landscape, destroy necessary biodiversity, and hinder social development.

Promises to Keep: water legislation and service delivery

Take for instance the issue of water security. South Africa has long been seen as a world leader in progressive water policy, particularly given its need to address unequal water policies of the Apartheid era. Its Constitution and its National Water Act explicitly declares the human right to water, guaranteeing a minimum allocation of 6000 litres of free, clean water a month for every South African. Nelson Mandela championed the cause, claiming that access to water is “central in the social, economic and political affairs of the country, [African] continent and the world. It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development.” The guiding vision for South African water policy is eloquently summed up by the former slogan for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry: “some, for all, forever.” The progressive language of water rights enshrined in the country’s legal frameworks is a point of pride amongst South African citizens, but also a flashpoint around which grievances often converge.

Unused farm stall on the road between Clanwilliam and Citrusdal. Source: John Hogg/World Bank (via Flickr)

Unused farm stall on the road between Clanwilliam and Citrusdal. Source: John Hogg/World Bank (via Flickr)

However, while the Constitution and the National Water Act overturned the discriminatory water policies of the Apartheid era, they remain vague and non-committal on the delivery of their lofty promises. Given all the competing priorities and demands for investment, the country has neglected to invest the necessary resources to create, maintain and upgrade its water infrastructure and to adequately promote water conservation in the face of increased demands on the precious resource.

In addition, the continued failure of sustainable agricultural practices and the promotion of economic growth in a business-as-usual and water-intensive manner have severely degraded South Africa’s water resources. All told, 48% of South Africa’s wetlands are critically endangered. Another telling example comes from the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the pursuit of economic development and social advancement has led to a rapid rate of environmental transformation. The rate of loss of unprotected natural areas is approximately 1% per annum, meaning that if it continues at this rate they (and all of the attendant services they provide) will be lost by 2050. Pushing back against these trends requires significant efforts on the part of many different actors. This will be, of course, a very difficult task.

Beyond technical deficiencies and economic tradeoffs, there remains a governance gap within the country that exacerbates the problems. The management of its water is largely disjointed and erratic. The various levels of government and the disparate non-state actors involved in water conservation and distribution are often arranged in Unsurprisingly, this leads to the multiplication of environmental stresses because stakeholders often lack technical knowledge, fail to adapt best environmental practices, contribute to spoiling common-pool resources, and contribute to social alienation from the natural world. This impedes economic development and hardens social cleavages between the rich, whose water flows freely and cheaply, and the poor, who suffer the debilitating effects brought upon by a lack of access to adequate water supplies. Thus, what is often lost in the discussion are the ways in which healthy ecosystems deliver valuable services to people. In essence, we are surrounded by ecological infrastructure.

The social component of South African water security combines with technical deficiencies and governance gaps to create a dangerous and environmentally devastating impact. This reflects the connections between environmental health with socio-political stability. Unfortunately, for South Africa, the picture is troubling. Non-violent resistance has been a common tactic, but even more concerning has been the recent exponential increase in violent protests over poor service delivery, privatization of service delivery, social marginalization, and the persistent inequality in access to water. One of the ways that could assist the country avoid further civil strife is to significantly increase sustainable environmental management and adjust its governance priorities to deliver upon the laudatory promises of its environmental legislation.

The Resilience of South Africa

On May 7th, 2014, South Africans will head to the polls for national elections. This will be the fourth election since the fall of Apartheid, and the first for the “born frees” – the generation of young South Africans born and raised in a democratic South Africa. Most opinion polls indicate that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party will be re-elected by a sizeable margin, though its support has dropped significantly in recent years. This is due in part to widening perceptions that the ANC has grown entrenched in its own privilege, reflected by ongoing corruption scandals and ineffective economic policies.

As South Africa moves further away from the legacy of Apartheid, it must confront continued social alienation, the pervasive effects of deep inequality, and the monumental challenge of building ecological resilience and sustainability. As service delivery protests increase, it is clear how the social cleavages of modern-day South Africa often manifest themselves around issues of water, sanitation, the environment, and human dignity.

The latest IPCC reports are remarkable achievements for a number of reasons. Not least, they clearly acknowledge the continued connections between human and environmental security. In this sense they reflect the growing awareness that to build resilient societies means to invest in resilient ecosystems, and vice versa. For South Africa, in possession of arguably the most progressive water legislation in the world, this requires actively investing in the ecological systems that builds and sustains human dignity. This will require the country to reconcile its rhetoric with its practice. A tall order to be sure, but one that is absolutely crucial for the country to fulfill the promise of its recent past.

Cameron Harrington is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town. His work is based upon research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Any opinion, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and therefore the NRF does not accept any liability in regard thereto.



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