Water and Sustainable Development from a South African Perspective

Asit K. Biswas

My relations with South Africa started during the apartheid years. I was invited in 1976 by the then President of CSIR to give a keynote lecture at their annual meeting in Johannesburg. In 1978, I was invited to speak at the opening ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the University of Stellenbosch. In 2006, when I received the Stockholm Water Prize, I met Ms. Lindiwe Hendricks, who had just been appointed as the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs. I visited South Africa several times as her advisor.

Minister Hendricks and her Director-General, Pam Yako, are two remarkable policymakers. I have been advising 23 countries, mostly at the Ministerial level. These two ladies are undoubtedly at the top of their class. When the Water Research Commission of South Africa was pushing outdated and unusable paradigms like integrated water resources management, these two senior policymakers moved South Africa’s water management to focus on water as a catalyst for growth and economic development. At that time South Africa’s policymakers were at least a decade ahead of the rest of the world. Minister Hendricks resigned before Jacob Zuma took over.

In 2015, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets were agreed to by the world leaders. Water and wastewater management were two important components of these SDGs.

If the world’s sustainable development goals are to be met, three important factors have to be defined. They are: for how many people, at what levels of living standards, and over what period of time. For the water sector, we have to consider what are likely to be new technological and management developments, at what rate they will be adopted in various countries, how perceptions and attitudes of the people may change in the future at different locations, to what extent water management institutions may become efficient to carry out their tasks, how climate change may impact on the availability and use of water resources in specific areas, and likely black swan incidents that are bound to occur in the future over short- and long-terms.

Given the complexities of forecasting reliably what may happen in the future even on only one of the above issues, let alone to predict the synergistic effect of all the relevant issues, the best that can be done is to consider a few possible scenarios and develop flexible, adaptable and resilient policies which could be adjusted from time to time, depending upon how the situations may develop.

Consider only one issue, population. The UN forecast is that by 2100, the world population would reach 11 billion. However, if access to contraception becomes widespread and the education of girls and women improves, a new study points out that the global population may peak at 9.7 billion in 2064, and then decline to 8.8 billion by 2100. This means the world will not have an extra 2.2 billion population. This would have different policy and economic implications for different countries. For example, the population of Italy, Japan, and Spain are expected to halve. China’s working-age population may decline from 950 million in 2017 to 360 million by 2100, and India’s from 762 to 580 million over the same period. In contrast, Nigeria’s population may increase over 5-fold, from 86 to 460 million. All these will have major implications on their development policies on all sectors, including water.

Rapid declines in population in several countries in the future will present unprecedented and complex problems for the water sector. This will significantly reduce stress on water and the environment. This would include how to downsize water supply and wastewater drainage networks significantly. Also, how a new financial model can be formulated with a steadily declining consumer base that would be affordable.

In contrast, water stress in countries of sub-Saharan Africa will increase significantly for the rest of this century. This means different countries, and also different states within individual countries will face different types of water problems for which historical solutions are unlikely to be effective.

Water problems of the world will thus become increasingly heterogeneous between countries and even within countries and will require different solutions.

These issues do not consider black swan incidents of the future. Take COVID-19 which no one expected and whose impacts are likely to be long-lasting. One major impact has been debts of developing countries, except for a few like China and Vietnam, have skyrocketed. Nearly all developing countries will have limited funds to meet SDG targets by 2030, including for water and wastewater. Much of the aid they may receive in the future would be earmarked for debt forgiveness, and thus not be used for development activities.

The probability of meeting SDG targets was not high even before COVID-19. With its emergence, falling national revenues and expensive relief measures have increased the global debt burden from the third quarter of 2019 by an estimated $20 trillion. It is still raising. By the end of 2020, the global debt was estimated to have reached $277 trillion, that is, 365% of the world’s GDP. The current decade is likely to be a lost decade for most developing countries, with perhaps modest advances at best in most development indicators.

If the water sector has to show some improvements, policymakers and professionals have to jettison old paradigms like integrated water resources management and integrated river basin management which have not worked in the real world for several decades and yet are being vigorously promoted by many water professionals and international organizations. South Africa needs to develop its own water management paradigms that would work under its special conditions.

At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st-century nations are facing numerous water-related problems, magnitudes, extent, and complexities of which no other earlier generation had to face. These can no longer be solved by business-as-usual approaches.

All major problems South Africa is facing, like the rest of the world, are interrelated. The dynamics of our future will be determined not by anyone single issue, like water, but by the interaction of a multitude of issues. Increases in population and urbanization and demand for a better quality of life would mean more food and energy, higher employments, reduced poverty, and a better environment. The common requirements for all implementable solutions must include better education and healthcare, access to more technology, greater investments, and intensified national and international cooperation. The interrelationships are often global in character, and thus they can be better appreciated and resolved within a global framework. While the framework may be global, within this there must be a wide variety of national and state responses that must specifically consider local conditions.

For the water sector, the University of Zululand needs to pioneer developments for local solutions that must specifically address its local conditions, requirements, and aspirations. If this becomes its focus in the future, I have no doubt within a decade or so, the University of Zululand will become a renowned university not only in South Africa but also all over the world.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow, UK, and Director of Water Management International Pte Ltd of Singapore. He received the Stockholm Water Prize in 2006, considered to be the Nobel Prize in the area of water.

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