The natural expectation when one turns a tap is that water will gush out.
However, that is not always the case in several countries in the region.
Even more tragic is that it is becoming almost expected that water supply is not guaranteed, even if one pays service fees/taxes and municipal rates.
In countries like Zimbabwe, the water supply system is symbolic of a country that corruption has run dry.
Some areas, particularly in the east of the capital, Harare, more than a decade had gone by now without a drop falling out of a tap.
The local authority essentially says it doesn’t have the money to repair the system. But somehow it always has the money for flashy cars for executives.
A denied right
The United Nations recognises access to clean water as a human right.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
According to the UN website: “On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.
“The resolution calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”
In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No 15 on the Right to Water.
Article 1.1 states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights". Comment No 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.
Despite authorities routinely mouthing platitudes to the effect that they recognise the inalienability of the right to access to water, this remains a right denied in many parts of the world, Southern Africa included.
Failure to cope
The water supply in Harare has been largely affected by four major factors: drought, corruption in the water treatment supply chain, increasing demand, and a dilapidated distribution system.
In South Africa, water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 10 percent in 15 years. If planned water schemes aren’t carried out, the Institute for Security Studies estimates that this gap could increase to 21 percent.
By all accounts, the challenges bedeviling water supply in South Africa and Zimbabwe are similar.
The region is prone to dry weather.
South Africa has a rainfall average of around 470mm. Zimbabwe has an average of between 550 to 900 mm, while Namibia has an average of 370mm, according to Climatestotravel.
Zimbabwe has faced two consecutive dry seasons. President Hage Geingob of Namibia in 2019 declared a drought state of emergency, and instituted drought contingency measures.
South Africa, particularly Cape Town, hogged the news in 2018 and 2019 as the water crisis led to the coining of a term “Day Zero” when the city - famous as the darling of tourists - expected to shut off water supplies to the public and begin rationing.
They never got to that stage, but the factors that brought the plan into being remain in effect.
Investment in water infrastructure and projects is muted, with Zimbabwe only now moving to construct new water supply dams after the last large-scale infrastructure upgrade in the 1950s.
The City of Harare says it uses nine different chemicals to treat water from Lake Chivero, which opened in 1952, at a monthly cost of US$3 million.
The tenders to supply these chemicals are often the subject of graft investigations. Right now, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission is reportedly probing a complaint by a losing bidder that the awarding of the tender to supply water treatment chemicals to the Harare City Council was irregular and politically influenced.
Such stories are now so commonplace they hardly make headlines.
The mismanagement of water resources has led to a deep-seated mistrust by residents of local authorities.
This has led to a cycle where residents are unwilling to pay for services, which leaves local authorities increasingly unable to provide services, more so when corruption is largely unchecked.
Harare loses up to 65 percent of its treated water through leakages.
Zimbabwe Multi Donor Trust Fund manager Emmanuel Nzabanita told a 2018 workshop that, “Harare should stop being one of the biggest losers of water given the fact there is shortage of supply.”
In South Africa, The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 35 percent of drinking water is wasted in cities and municipalities due to leaks. This includes in private homes.
Water is also lost to old infrastructure and a high number of illegal connections, a problem that most countries in the region can identify with as an increasing number of people move into informal urban settlements with no services, then proceed to set up their own connections.
The danger of poor water supplies in crowded areas are clear.
Zimbabwe has battle cholera outbreaks in 2018 and 2008.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic requires a high level of hygiene, and the lack of constant clean water supplies could be aiding contagion.
“It is only through divine intervention that we have not had a major disease outbreak here,” says Adiona Masaraure, a Harare resident. “The water we use comes from shallow wells near a dry river bed. Sometimes it is slimy and greenish, but we have no option.”
The next war zone
Fresh water has been described as the next battlefield.
Unless countries in the region take action now to manage this resource better and to take up more efficient water use methods, that battle may erupt sooner rather than later.
There is hope ahead, if countries in the region adopt new attitudes toward conserving, harvesting and using freshwater.
J Carl Ganter of Circleofblue.org lists key interventions that could help solve the water crisis
1. Educate to change consumption and lifestyles
In the end, changing the face of this crisis involves education to motivate new behaviours. Coping with the coming era of water scarcity will require major overhaul of all forms of consumption, from individual use to corporate usage.
2. Invent new water conservation technologies
In areas where aquifers are drying up and rainwater is increasingly unpredictable, innovation is needed. But as we attempt to cope with freshwater scarcity and develop conservation technologies, energy consumption is an important consideration.
3. Recycle wastewater
In March, World Water Day panelists urged a new mindset for wastewater treatment. Some countries, like Singapore, are trying to recycle to cut water imports and become more self-sufficient. The rich East Asian republic is a leader in developing advanced technology that cleanses wastewater for other uses, including drinking.
4. Improve irrigation and agricultural practices
Some 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture. Improving irrigation can help close supply and demand gaps. In certain cases profligate irrigation practices meant for an earlier era has weakened the ability of farmers to provide food and fiber to a growing world.
5. Appropriately price water
Water pricing and rights go hand in hand, with consumers questioning the benefit of higher prices. According to experts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international economic forum of 31 of the world’s richest countries, raising prices will help lower waste and pollution.
6. Develop energy efficient desalination plants
To date, desalination has been an energy-intensive solution to water scarcity. Typically the Middle East has capitalised on its large energy reserves to build desalination plants. But Saudi Arabia could be fostering a new kind of desalination with its recent announcement to use solar-powered plants.
Britain has taken a different approach with small-scale facilities for agriculture. But these innovations bring to light another needed resource — the capital for technological experimentation.
7. Improve water catchment and harvesting
Water catchment systems are essential for areas with no other reliable water sources. Pakistan and India — two countries that contend with some of the worst effects of climate change — are overhauling rainwater harvesting systems. These efforts provide independent control of water resources.
8. Look to community-based governance and partnerships
Community organisations elevate the experiences of those whose voices merit more influence. Ensuring more effective governance at the grassroots-level gives communities stature, and can lead to effective policy changes on a national scale.
9. Holistically manage ecosystems
Simply put, holistic management applies to a practical, common-sense approach to overseeing natural resources that takes into account economic, cultural, and ecological goals. In essence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and each facet is related to and influences the others. Good examples of holistic management are communities that operate sewage treatment plants while pursuing partnerships with clean energy producers to use wastewater to fertilize algae and other biofuel crops. The crops, in turn, soak up nutrients and purify wastewater, significantly reducing pumping and treatment costs.
10. Improve distribution infrastructure
Poor infrastructure is devastating to health and the economy. It wastes resources, adds costs, diminishes the quality of life, and allows preventable water-borne diseases to spread among vulnerable populations, especially children. The problem is not confined to the developing world.
11. Shrink corporate water footprints
Industrial water use accounts for approximately 22 percent of global consumption. The corporate footprint includes water that is directly and indirectly consumed when goods are produced. As sustainable manufacturing becomes more important, given the increasing severity of water scarcity, Peter Gleick and other experts question the costs of one industry sector in particular: bottled water.
12. Build international frameworks and institutional cooperation
Binding international accords for natural resource issues are hard to achieve. The 2009 UnitedNations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is evidence of that point. And that’s not just because the freshwater crisis, arguably the most visible and dire of the climate change risks, was ignored. Regional agreements regarding transboundary or shared water bodies such as the Great Lakes Compact in the US and the Nile River Basin Agreement in Africa are just as difficult to ratify. But policymakers and advocates need to keep trying. Humanitarian-oriented treaties, such as the U.N.’s drinking water Millennium Development Goals, indicate that comprehensive global strategies are possible.
13. Address pollution
Measuring and monitoring water quality is essential to human health and biodiversity. While securing the quality of drinking water and at the local level, it’s essential to build international bridges to solutions.
14. Public common resources / equitable access
One of the key United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is ensuring access to drinking water. While the steps to achieve this goal are debated, the thesis that water is a basic right comes into play. As countries such as Chile attempt to reform water rights, US politicians are considering how access rights translate into federal protection of Lake Michigan, one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater.
Access to water in a water-scarce world will become a much higher priority in business decisions. Communities are likely to pursue public-private partnerships that draw on the innovative capacities of companies. One example— cities that operate sewage treatment plants are likely to pursue partnerships with clean energy producers to fertilize algae and other biofuel crops with wastewater.
16. Water projects in developing countries / transfer of technology
Climate change and water scarcity are producing the most dramatic consequences in developing regions, such as northwest India and Sub-Saharan Africa. One proposed solution is to transfer water conservation technologies to these dry areas. Doing so is tricky because economies are weak and there are gaps in skills that often compel government and business authorities to impose these changes on local citizens.
17. Climate change mitigation
Climate change and water scarcity go hand-in-hand to cause some of the biggest contemporary challenges to the human race. These issues have a reciprocal relationship, identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which, “water management policies and measures can have an influence on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” As renewable energy options are pursued, the water consumption of these mitigation tactics must be considered in producing alternatives ranging from bio-energy crops to hydropower and solar power plants.