Running on Empty – What Business, Government and Citizens must do to confront South Africa’s water crisis

April 2016 Report
Running on Empty 1

Executive summary

South Africa, one of the driest countries in the world, is on the cusp of a major water crisis that poses a serious and immediate risk to the economy and to social stability. Against this backdrop, an urgent collective focus on water efficiency involving all parts of society is the only way to address this risk in a timely manner.

While water scarcity has been brought into sharp focus by the 2015 drought, the challenge is far broader in scope than the current emergency. Because of the central role water occupies in our lives, managing water scarcity is not just one of many peripheral issues South Africa faces, but one that, with increasing pressures from climate change, population growth and the future demands of economic development, could define our country’s progress. Lack of action could lead to social conflicts, cause further damage to already marginalised communities and severely limit socioeconomic development. While the poor face the greatest immediate risk, this challenge ultimately threatens everyone.

We need a paradigm shift in the way we value and manage water. Instead of placing the prime focus on building new dams and infrastructure that will take too long to help solve the immediate crisis, South Africa must refocus its response from securing supply to investing in managing demand more effectively. The most immediate requirement is to massively ramp up water efficiency measures at all levels, which could generate significant water savings and result in a more equitable distribution of water. These actions must involve all parts of society, but there is a particularly important role for its most powerful and resourceful members, namely the South African business community which has largely been invisible in the debate, despite the significant, direct risk that water scarcity represents for the bottom line of companies operating across the nation.

Although South Africa has made significant progress in ensuring that more citizens have access to fresh water, this trend is rapidly reversing due to crumbling infrastructure and extreme weather events. Severe drought is already having considerable economic impacts and is especially impacting poor rural communities, women and girls. The government has declared four out of nine South African provinces disaster areas, while 6,500 rural communities face acute water shortages. Severe water pollution in many areas exacerbates the pressure on water sources, as do high levels of water loss and wastage. More than 25% of water never reaches the final consumer because of faulty infrastructure, while 6.4% of water is stolen by unauthorised users. Thirty percent of treatment facilities are in a critical state, implying that millions of litres of untreated or inadequately treated sewage are illegally discharged into rivers and streams each day. As a semi-arid country, South Africa cannot afford such pollution and wastage of its precious water supplies.

The country already imports nearly a quarter of its water from Lesotho through a water transfer scheme, primarily to serve the Gauteng region. There will be a 17% gap between supply and demand in 2030 and several South African Water Management Areas will not have enough water to meet their water demand. Those likely to face the biggest gaps are the ones supplying the largest cities – Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. Cape Town, which falls within the Berg Water Management Area, will need to close a gap of about 28% to meet future demand. The Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria noted in 2014, that government’s current plan is inadequate in addressing the scale of the problem. While a key demand driver is the increasing size of the country’s urban population, projections estimate that household demand will equal 3.6 billion m3 by 2030, with the wealthiest fifth of the population accounting for half of all withdrawals. Like most basic rights and social services in South Africa, water access is fundamentally affected by systemic inequalities, often dictated and perpetuated by the Government and corporations.

In 2015, global investment group Nomura International reduced its 2016 growth forecast for South Africa by 3% because of water restrictions limiting output. Longer-term modelling indicates that further decreases in the quality and therefore usability of water in the country (even by 1%) could lead to the loss of an estimated 200,000 jobs, a drop of 5.7% in disposable income per person (the equivalent of R16 billion per household), and an increase of 5% in government spending and debt.

Despite the gloomy outlook, significant and almost immediate savings can be made by investing in water efficiency at all levels. Furthermore, investing in water also offers economic opportunities, and many good initiatives are already underway. In agriculture, which uses 60% of the country’s water, 30-40% of water could be saved just by ensuring that irrigation systems are more efficient. The domestic and municipal sectors – currently using 27% of South African water – can reduce their consumption by at least 12–30% by addressing physical leaks and increasing household water efficiency. The information on potential savings is much less clear for industry, which uses 11% of South Africa’s water, and the rest of the business community, which consumption represents around a third of municipal water. However, our calculations show that, if industry reduced its water usage by 10%, 3.1 million households (about 13.7 million people) would be able to access a basic supply of 6,000 litres a month.

Potential Savings

Agriculture could save 30—40% water by investing in more efficient irrigation

Municipal and domestic users could save 12—30% by stopping leaks and increasing household water efficiency

By improving efficiency in industrial use of water by 10%, 13.7 million people can get basic water supply


Given that the business community and commercial-scale farmers have the most resources and face significant economic risk from water scarcity and pollution, they should immediately step up their engagement and practical response to the looming crisis. They can start doing this by disclosing their own water use; setting transparent targets and improving their own operations; and working with their supply chains to ensure that they use as little water as possible. The business community could begin investing in products and technologies that save water. They can also offer these to consumers and inform them about the benefits. Retailers, for example, should take the lead by only offering water-efficient products, such as water-efficient taps and detergents. Finally, the business community should work together with national and local authorities to improve infrastructure, including wastewater treatment facilities, and maintenance to prevent leakages. These types of water efficiency projects already exist and offer significant benefits in helping to ensure the supply of sufficient and high-quality water to all South Africans. Drastic behavioural change on the part of businesses and consumers is therefore required to bring the situation back under control.

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