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Water as a Connecting Force

On 12 December 2010, in Lance Greyling, by Andrew Bennett
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Speech by Lance Greyling at Accelerate Cape Town Breakfast held on 17 November 2010

Firstly let me state that it is a great honour to be here today and I really support this initiative organized by Accelerate Cape Town, KPMG and Icologie. I believe that it will have achieved its aim if it can make us all stop for a while and think more deeply about water; something that we constantly take for granted in our lives. This is despite it being the most essential factor to our very existence as an individual, as a society, as an economy and as a species on this planet.

My speech is supposed to deal with the international dimensions of water, but what I would prefer to do is to mimic the flow of water and reveal how it functions as a connecting force. A connecting force between all forms of life on this planet; between the local, the regional and international spaces; and between our past, our present and our future.

Let me start this journey right here where we live. Almost two thousands year ago the first Khoe inhabitants were originally drawn to the Table valley because of the existence of around 20 freshwater springs. In fact the first name that was given to this area was Camissa, literally meaning ‘place of sweetwater’. These freshwater springs and the watercourses flowing from them also led to Jan Van Riebeeck establishing his vegetable gardening enterprise at the Cape of Good Hope. Right up until the turn of the nineteenth century these springs in fact provided for all Cape Town’s water needs. An interesting historical fact is that the first environmental law that was ever passed in South Africa way back in 1655 concerned the stadtsfontein spring. Placaat 12 was a law that was succinctly summarized in a notice stating “Moenie in die water kak!”

Today as one journeys through Cape Town you can find traces of our early connection to these watercourses. In Prince Street in the Gardens area the original swaaipump still stands where people used to congregate and collect their water for their households. The Molteno reservoir was the site of a watermill, which in 1895 generated the first electricity for the City’s lighting.

As Cape Town’s population grew, however, these springs and reservoirs proved insufficient to provide for its burgeoning population and growing water demand. The City officials responded in a way that has characterized our approach as humans to most environmental constraints that we encounter. They looked for the technological fix, which in this case was building big dams first on Table Mountain and then outside of the city. This is a completely understandable and rational approach, but what it ultimately led to was a complete severing of our intimate connection with our water supply.

Water is now simply piped in from somewhere far away and there is an expectation on our part that the authorities will do what it takes to keep the taps flowing so as to satisfy whatever demands we might have. The tragedy is that we have also closed off many of these original springs and we have built roads over their watercourses. Instead of supplying the city with water, the millions of litres a day that are produced from these springs have been diverted into the stormwater system where they are presently being lost to the sea.

I have relayed this story about Cape Town not to induce nostalgia for a previous era but to illustrate the way in which our connections with the essential elements of nature are being ignored. We have come to view the environment as a subset of our economy whereas in fact it is quite clearly the other way round. Solving our impending water crisis both in South Africa and the world is going to require a change in the way in which we view these so-called free resources of nature.

In South Africa we have already allocated 98 percent of our available water resources. We have a very progressive national water act that in fact explicitly states that water first needs to be allocated for basic human needs and to ensure environmental integrity before it can be allocated for any other purpose. One of the implications of this law is that the lack of adequate water supply can in fact prevent future projects from being approved. I saw an example of this in the Hartebeespoort Dam area recently where a platinum mine was not granted approval to expand its operations as there was no more water to be allocated. The platinum mine was therefore forced to find ways of saving water in their existing operations and they even went so far as to fund water saving initiatives in the surrounding area. This was so that they would be able to divert some of that saved water to their operations.

Water scarcity is unfortunately a reality in South Africa as we are the 30th driest country in the world. It is not just about the availability of water though, it is also about ensuring good water quality. The quality of many of our freshwater sources are deteriorating rapidly due to failing sewerage treatment plants and pollution from industries and mining operations being discharged into our rivers. Perhaps we need to revert back to our first environmental law of “moenie in die water kak.”

Solving these problems however are going to require enormous amounts of both financial and human resources. The Department of Water Affairs has estimated that it is going to require R113 billion to upgrade our water infrastructure to an acceptable standard in this country. Added to this figure is the amount of R50 billion which it is estimated will be needed to rehabilitate ownerless mines in South Africa and deal with the fast rising problem of acid mine drainage. I realize that this all paints a rather depressing picture, but these problems can be solved and I believe the private sector can make a major contribution to this effort.

I believe that it has to start with every company as well as individuals first recognizing the role that water plays in their functioning. This should not just be on an esoteric level though, but it must be a tangible audit of your water usage across the value chain. South African Breweries recently did this with WWF and they calculated that it takes 155 litres of water to make one beer. So much for the bumper sticker “Save water, Drink beer”. They then set about trying to reduce their water usage both in their breweries and with the farmers who supplied them with their hops and barley. The unavoidable water usage was then offset by their sponsoring of an alien clearing project under the auspices of Working for Water. This project created jobs and has managed to save millions of litres of water that was previously being drawn out of the watercourse by these invasive species. This is a prime example of the kind of win-win initiatives that businesses can engage in.

The private sector also needs to get involved in solving some of our systemic problems around water. We need to train up a new cadre of water engineers in South Africa and make operating a sewerage plant a revered profession. We have a huge skills gap developing in the water sector and we all need to take a responsibility for addressing it.

Finally I need to make mention of the international dimensions of the water issue. Water is in fact not so much an international issue as more of a regional one. It is the regions of the world such as in India and China where different countries receive water from the same catchment areas that the potential for conflict is high. Freshwater can’t readily be transported around the Globe from water rich countries to water scarce countries and so conflicts over this precious resource will mainly be restricted to certain regions of the world. The international connecting point for all of this though is climate change and the way in which the hydrological cycle will be intensified through higher temperature increases. Simplistically put this means that those parts of the world that are prone to floods will experience them more frequently and more intensely with the same logic applying to droughts.

Having attended the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen last year it pains me deeply to say that I do not have much confidence left that we will be able to prevent the world’s temperature from rising more than two degrees. This means that South Africa, the Western Cape and Cape Town will have to start rapidly putting in place measures that can help us adapt to the changes that are going to occur. This is especially the case with regards to our water resources.

To end on a positive note though, we have to give ourselves credit as a country for reducing the number of people without access to freshwater from 15 million down to 1.6 million in the space of 16 years. This is a phenomenal achievement and it shows what we can do when we have a vision and we remain committed to it. We can overcome the huge challenges that are facing us in the water sector but it is going to require all of us working together to find those innovative win-win solutions that can restore water to its rightful place in our consciousness and our society.

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