Remembering our relationship with water

by Liteboho Makhele
28 September 2020

Can we admit that we have neglected our stewardship towards water and summon the bravery to hold each other to account? We have forgotten our relationship with water as individuals, as communities, as businesses and as spheres of government. There are undoubtedly multiple systemic issues that are often cited for why we find ourselves facing a “day zero” or an imminent declaration of a “state of disaster” in yet another major city in the country. Lack of infrastructure maintenance and funding challenges, financing and pricing models of water supply, municipal corruption, incompetence, lack of proper planning and general system failures – the list can be endless – and the inevitable blame game that ensues.


We can also blame the unpredictability of climate change and its impacts, the persistent droughts which seem to be here to stay but we know that we live in a water scarce country, the 30th driest in the world. We have highly variable water resources across the country with average annual rainfall of 495mm while the global annual average is 1033mm (ISS, 2014). Despite this knowledge, we have over-exploited our national water system and our unsustainable water consumption patterns continue unabated, with average reported consumption levels of 237 litres/per person/per day compared to a global average of  180 litres/person/per day (DWS, 2019). Our current water usage already exceeds the reliable supply and the consequences are increasingly becoming obvious. At this current usage rate, the availability of economically usable freshwater resources will be extremely limited, to non-existent, by 2035 (ISS, 2014). We are also destroying the natural systems on which we depend for our water resources, with more than 50% of South Africa’s wetlands completely destroyed and of those that remain, 33% are in poor ecological condition (DWS, 2019).


We should take collective accountability for non-revenue water in municipalities which stands at 41%, with 35% lost through leakages (DWS, 2019), amounting to loses of about 1660 million m³ of water per year; at a unit cost of R6/m³ this amounts to R9.9 billion each year (DWS, 2019). While the manifestation of these issues is evident country-wide, the highest demand and consumption of this precious resource happens in our cities, where the majority of the country’s population lives. As cities grow, plans are continuously put in place to improve water supply and demand management. However, new infrastructure continues to be designed for a water system that assumes there is enough sustainable water for it to continue functioning the way it has always been for the past 50 years.


The management and provision of the resource is itself, also unsustainable, as the current financing and pricing model creates the need for cities to generate sufficient revenue from water to cover the costs of maintaining the necessary water-supply infrastructure (Daily Maverick, 2019). “This has and will always lead to perverse incentives being offered by cities in order to generate revenue” (EMG, 2019); thus cities fail to deliver equitable, safe and reliable supply of water to millions of South Africans. With population growth, rapid urbanisation, growing informality, and climate change impacts, coupled with aging infrastructure, limited and ineffective maintenance, the plans cities are putting in place have very little positive impact.


So, what can cities effectively do?

To manage water resources sustainably and to support the social and economic development of the country, managers of water resources and infrastructure in cities need to re-think and radically transform the current patterns of infrastructure provision as well as the financing and pricing models which have turned water into a commodity at the expense of its intrinsic value.


Because the challenges are multi-faceted, the solutions also need to be multi-dimensional. Cities can start by:

    1. Re-introducing water to citizens as a valuable resource and as an asset in urban living.
    2. Planning for the water sector in an integrated way with other urban sectors, such as land use, housing, energy, and transport to overcome fragmentation in public policy formulation and decision-making (Bahri, 2012).
    3. Strengthening cross-sectoral relationships through the articulation of collective goals and respective benefits, and the negotiation of differences in power and resources.
    4. Involving all water users including the urban informal sector and marginalised populations to encourage participatory stewardship and ensure social and ecological justice.
    5. Integrating innovative water management solutions with urban planning approaches by transforming existing water infrastructure through re-engineering, re-configuring, retrofitting and integrating it as part of city life.


Perhaps it is also time to call on all-of-society, as the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) prescribes, to knuckle down and find solutions together for the benefit of all; as these are, after all, OUR cities, and try as they may, city governments cannot tackle these issues successfully on their own.


What can citizens do?

Although our lives depend on it, as citizens our relationship with water is fractured. We pollute it, waste it  and systematically abuse it. We seem to have ecological amnesia and have forgotten the value and benefits of water in our lives and our stewardship towards it. Today this fractured relationship sits at the heart of the current crisis.


We need to remember, re-think and re-establish our relationship with water. This will require a deeper understanding of the intrinsic value of this precious resource and the limits to its availability.


In addition, we need to be active citizens by:

    1. Participating in civic life and ensuring we know our rights and responsibilities. This will enable us to hold municipalities accountable and ensure they put in place formal communication channels where we can relay our concerns, grievances, and solutions on water management.
    2. Getting involved in decision-making processes on water management in our cities so that we own and re-claim our water stewardship.
    3. Moving beyond traditional environmental awareness campaigns and engaging in community-wide, intentional action to advocate for water and the environment.
    4. Creating spaces, programs and processes for young people to have positive direct experiences with the natural world, including water.
    5. Creating small-scale technological solutions, collaborating and partnering with different stakeholders across different sectors to bring about those solutions.
    6. Conserving, harvesting, storing and recycling water.


As citizens, we need to realise our capabilities in activating an all-of-society approach to tackle the multiplicity of issues we face and achieve the objectives of Lever 7 of the IUDF which advocates for empowered and active communities.


Flowing together

Looking at the challenges through different lenses is important for a balanced perspective of the issues of water management in cities. If we are to transition to an inclusive, equitable and non-resource intensive economy, collective action plays a vital role in securing the future of water in our cities and the country at large. There is still a long way to go and together we can contribute to making South Africa a water secure country.


Water cannot be replaced and unlike electricity, it cannot be produced from other sources. We therefore need to remember that we are water stewards; we do not own it, but our responsibility is to take care of this precious resource and conserve it for current and future generations.

Liteboho Makhele is the Programme Manager for the Sustainable & Resilient Cities Programme at the South African Cities Network. To contact her email