30 September 2003

South Africa: Cities Warned to Plan Ahead to Avoid Water Shortage

Johannesburg — Study urges governments to increase efforts to protect catchment areas for the benefit of people and nature

SA's taps could soon run dry, according to a new World BankWorld Wide Fund (WWF) report projecting that water resources in the country's major cities, particularly Johannesburg, would be exhausted by 2020.

The report warns that SA's three main metropolitan areas, like the world's biggest cities, are in danger of losing their grip on providing affordable, safe drinking water over the next decade, if water conservation strategies are not given priority.

It calls on governments and donor agencies to significantly increase efforts to protect water catchment areas if they are to reduce poverty and halve the number of people without adequate access to water by 2015, a target set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development last year and reinforced at the World Parks Congress in Durban this month.

In many arid countries, including SA, there is already an acute water supply shortage, and it is estimated that humanity now uses 54% of accessible runoff, a figure that is expected rise to 70% by 2005.

David Cassells, the World Bank's senior environmental specialist for forest resources, stresses the importance of conserving whole catchment areas to protect water supplies for cities, an investment which he says will benefit both people and nature.

He fears that time is running out for many cities.

"Protecting forests around water catchment areas is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. When they are gone, the costs of providing clean and safe drinking water to urban areas will increase dramatically."

For some countries, relying on nonrenewable groundwater sources masks a problem that could rapidly become more acute as they become exhausted.

The average annual per capita availability of renewable water resources is projected to fall from 6600m' today to 4800m' in 2025 due to population growth.

In 1998, 28 countries experienced water scarcity, a figure that is predicted to rise to 56 by 2025.

"As the number of people in urban areas grows, so does the demand for water, food and for irrigation in agricultural areas close to the city, adding further pressures on water resources," says the report.

In the past century the world's population tripled, but water use rose six times.

Increasing pollution, rising demand, urbanisation, exhaustion of groundwater sources, overexploitation of aquatic resources, an unstable climate and political disputes have made water an increasingly threatened resource.

"Because it (water) is a natural product, from natural ecosystems, there is only a certain amount that technology can do to fix the problems," notes the report.

It highlights that more than a third of the world's 105 biggest cities, including Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, rely on fully or partly protected forests in catchment areas for much of their drinking water.

Johannesburg, which draws most of its water from the Maluti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park through the Vaal transbasin pumped storage scheme or the Lesotho Highland water scheme, is starting to prioritise water conservation and demand management based on the scary projections.

Cape Town extracts significant water from catchment areas including the Cape Peninsula National Park and the provincial reserves along the Hottentots Holland mountain range.

Durban's water comes from a variety of sources, including the Ukhahlamba, Drakensberg Park catchment areas and protected areas such as the Umgeni Vlei.

The report points to the Drakensberg as the most important mountain catchment in SA because of its high water yield. It also produces goodquality water, which flows through a series of large dams set in the upper catchments of the province's major rivers, the Tugela, Bushmans and Umgeni.

The report lauds SA as one of the first countries in the world to adopt a National Water Act that incorporates a catchment management strategy for sound water resource management.

Johannesburg is one of the first cities to develop catchment management strategies at a local level for two rivers flowing through the city.

Ultimately, water catchment areas depend on well-managed natural forests to cut the risk of landslides, erosion and sedimentation.

The report suggests that SA adopt an active forest protection strategy, which could result in massive savings.

It is much cheaper to protect forests than to build water treatment plants, says Dr Chris Elliott, director of WWF's Forests for Life Programme.

"Cities currently struggling with unsafe water supplies should protect, manage, and where necessary restore forests in strategic places," he says.

However, he warns that drinking water for city dwellers should not come at the expense of people living in catchment areas.

The report concludes that better enforcement of the protected status is urgently needed as several of the forest protected areas around big cities still suffer from harmful activities, such as illegal land use and logging.

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