Water is the basis of health and well-being of people and nature. Access to it is a human rights issue recognized by international treaties and declarations and national standards. It is vital to education and economic productivity. After all, it connects the environment to society.

The latest statistics (2020) show an overall global trend of positive progress in access to water. The share of the global population with access to safe drinking water increased from 70.2% in 2015 to 74.3% in 2020.

Two billion without drinking water

But despite this progress, two billion people still lack safe drinking water in 2020. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number, with 387 million people still lacking basic drinking water services. Now, only 54% of the population of the region has access to safe drinking water.

In South Africa, the right to water is enshrined in the constitution. Before the country’s transition to democracy in 1994, government policy focused on the development of the white minority. The development of the country’s water resources was not focused on improving the situation of the predominantly black, poor population.

Since 1996, the country has made significant progress in expanding water services, particularly to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and rural areas. But inequality in access to basic services is still a reality. Progress in the provision of water and sanitation services is slow and in some cases deteriorating.

Water is a critical resource. Its provision should be considered as a factor contributing to socio-economic development. Water infrastructure must be properly maintained – and upgraded – to ensure access and reliable water supply to ensure water security.

Progress in South Africa

In 1994, about 14 million people (35%) in South Africa did not have access to basic water. The minimum standard for these services is defined as clean tap water supplied within 200 meters of the house at a minimum flow rate of 10 liters per minute for 300 days a year, with any interruption of no more than two days at a time.

The government has adopted various policies and programs aimed at sustainable development of water resources, improving the quantity and quality of water supply to citizens. Thus, a comprehensive legislative framework for the provision of water supply and drainage services has been created.

Since 1994, the country has made clear progress in extending and expanding water supply to rural and previously unserved areas. During the first decade of democracy (1994 to 2004), approximately 13.4 million more people gained access to basic water services.

But the country still faces a large backlog in the provision of water and sanitation services. While the focus has been on water services and urban backlogs over the past few decades, the widespread and diverse problems in rural areas have been neglected.

The reality of access to water

Despite initial progress since 1996, the country’s water situation has worsened. Reliability of water supply and infrastructure – as evidenced by frequent water outages – tends to decline.

It is important to note that even when communities have access to water through infrastructure, this does not guarantee the provision of basic water services.

Households with access to clean water gradually increased from 67% in 1993 to approximately 85% in 2015 and 96% in 2018. On the other hand, the share of households with reliable and safe water services, e.g. with sources of clean water, not far from their homes – decreased by 64% in 2018.

Water infrastructure versus water supply in 2021. National integrated information system on water resources. Source – Conversation.

The deterioration of the country’s water infrastructure and the actual provision of reliable and safe water supply can be attributed to a lack of investment in infrastructure maintenance and delays in upgrading old infrastructure. Other contributing factors include poor governance, limited budgets, poor revenue management by local municipalities, misappropriation of funds, lack of capacity or necessary technical skills related to water supply and sanitation operation and maintenance.

Thus, South Africa faces a harsh reality: a third of all water infrastructure is not fully functional. This goes against the global trend of positive progress.

In addition, the government’s planned budget for repairing or rehabilitating damaged water infrastructure is already short of 333 billion rand, compared to the estimated 898 billion rand estimated to be required under the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan released in 2018 .

Let’s go forward

Based on my research on integrated water management, I suggest that South Africa take some of the following steps to avoid a major water crisis and improve water security. These guidelines are also contained in the country’s National Water Security Program.

  • Solving the problem of inefficient use and waste of water.
  • Conduct additional research on the impact of extreme weather events and climate change on the country’s water resources.
  • Invest in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades and address deficiencies in management and record keeping systems.
  • Developing and implementing an institutional and regulatory framework and ensuring compliance with the existing regulatory framework.
  • There is a need to focus on current skills shortages. The potential of key national government departments and municipalities must be assessed objectively.

South Africa needs to move away from simply building water systems to providing a basic level of service for all.

Anya du Plessis: Associate Professor and Research Specialist in Integrated Water Management, University of South Africa

This article originally appeared on Moneyweb and has been republished with permission.
Read the original article here.

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