Our watershed… opportunity
South Africans are gearing up for a tough summer. While loadshedding (the frequent power shortages that plagued the country since 2008) has eased, a new issue came to the fore this week: watershedding. In areas of Germiston and the East Rand, water shortages have been reported and watershedding between 10am and 3pm is on the cards. While the heatwave and drought across the country are the immediate cause of the shortages, there are far deeper structural problems that is likely to make watershedding a common feature of daily life in South Africa in the near future.
This should not come as a surprise. There has been several warnings in the media about the likelihood of watershedding over the past few years, well before the heatwave and drought made the situation acute. On 25 June, Niki Moore wrote the following in the Daily Maverick:
The reason for any potential water shedding is almost a mirror image of why we have load-shedding. Since 1994, millions of people have been added to the water grid with very little thought being given to increasing the capacity of water storage or water intake plants. Combined with mismanagement of water, non-payment for water, huge water wastage through lack of maintenance and neglect, and poor governance through corruption, we are facing a high noon of water shortages that might start affecting us in as soon as a few months.
Well, that was pretty accurate. But watershedding – a shortage of water – is only one concern. The more serious one is the pollution of existing drinking water, which is likely to have serious health consequences. Here is Anthony Turton on the water crisis:
The possibility of major public health crises in the short to medium term is growing and can no longer be discounted. We could soon see a major bloom of toxic cyanobacteria, especially in the light of the increased water temperatures likely to result from the El Nino Southern Oscillation now evident in southern Africa. The growing risk to both companies and individuals needs to be anticipated and understood, so that remedial action can be taken as quickly and effectively as possible.
The reason this is unlikely to happen, he argues, is political:
All available data suggests there is little in South Africa’s water sector to be optimistic about. The level of politicisation has become so high that decision-making is no longer rooted in hydrological realities. Ideology is regarded as paramount, while reality counts only as a secondary factor. The ideological filters in place make it very difficult to carry out any serious technical assessment of water quality or management. In addition, no serious attempt is currently in place to embark on evidence-based policy reforms.
Perhaps the greatest failure of the new order since 1994 has been deteriorating water quality. This has been caused primarily by massive failures in the management of municipal wastewater treatment plants, which have made the State the biggest polluter of water in the country. This looming disaster could have been avoided by more rational and less ideologically-driven policy choices. We need to challenge this approach if we are to re-invigorate our democracy and extricate ourselves from the horns of the dilemma arising from the politicisation of water in a highly water-constrained national economy.
So what can be done about this? The easy but unsatisfactory answer is that local government elections are next year, and South Africans should use this opportunity to demand change. But much of the problem is more systemic and pervasive than local governments can solve on their own; as Turton argues, the “first essential requirement is a new and technically robust national strategic plan for managing, conserving, and augmenting the country’s limited water supplies”. National elections, though, are only in 2018, and it is difficult to envisage dramatic change.
Instead, South Africans will have to find solutions to the water crisis outside the remit of government. This is difficult with a water utility, which is the epitome of a natural monopoly and the reason the state is almost always involved. But just as the case with loadshedding, technology may provide a solution.
Last night, I watched a 2014 documentary about the SlingShot, a device developed by the creator of the Segway, Dean Kamen, to purify water. Much like Elon Musk has created the PowerWall to allow households access to electricity at all times, the SlingShot is a device which would allow anyone able to convert contaminated and filthy water (or even seawater) into drinkable water. The device has been tested in Ghana, South Africa and in several Latin American countries. It has the support of Bill Clinton and the CEO of Coca-Cola.
I’m a technoptimist. I don’t know whether this particular technology will be successful, but as Estian Calitz and I argued in this 2009 paper, technology will allow public goods to be increasingly viewed as private goods, or natural monopolies to be made into competitive industries. Cell phones are a good example, breaking down the need to have large, fixed-line networks that doesn’t make sense to build more than once: i.e. the natural monopoly of Telkom. Elon Musk’s PowerWall, coupled with renewable energy generation, will break the natural monopoly of Eskom. Perhaps Kamen’s SlingShot (or a similar device) will do the same for water.
South Africans have many reasons to be pessimistic about the future. But, as David Landes writes in the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, it pays to be optimistic.
In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when they are wrong they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.
Maybe the watershed moment for South Africa is when we realise that the promise of a better life for all lies not in the next elections, but instead in embracing new technologies.