South Africa's water future was beset with challenges, but there was much room for optimism, too.
This was the message from Dhesigen Naidoo, chief executive officer of the Water Research Commission (WRC), during his recent Pro Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture. The WRC is South Africa's dedicated public water research and development agency and the premier national water knowledge hub.
In his address, titled South Africa's Water Challenges - a cause for despair or an opportunity for leap-frogging?, Naidoo said the word "crisis" was frequently used when discussing South Africa's water future, and it had a certain impact.
Water, he said, was flowing uphill, towards Gauteng, in the direction of money. There was a diminishing water quality in most river systems, coupled with huge growth in demand in all sectors, with much higher levels of competition for a scare resource.
The water crisis, he said, was by no means a new phenomenon. There was evidence the world experienced water crises as far back as 5000BC.
"The reason why it's particularly stark now is because the information flow around the world is rampant. So we are not looking at a new crisis, but at the perpetuation of a difficulty that has been there in various shapes and forms for a long time".
In 2012 the World Economic Forum had declared that the number one business risk in the world was the assurance and supply of water.
"We have pegged success and economic development to excess. We are moving from modest water lifestyles, to excessive water lifestyles very rapidly," said Naidoo.
In Africa, and particularly Southern Africa, climate change wasn't just a discussion, but a reality that had expressed itself in some very fundamental ways.
"We have a new nutritional security crisis. We are visibly seeing, from month to month and from season to season, a change in the disease burdens in our part of the world. And we are seeing a new phenomenon - that of climate change refugees - with climate change having had such disastrous results in some parts of the world that people's livelihoods have disappeared."
But with every crisis came opportunity, he said, as explained by the mandarin word for crisis: wei ji- with wei meaning crisis and ji opportunity.
As such, there was much cause for optimism, said Naidoo. South Africa did very well in the science and technology domain, as far as water was concerned, and its very small water science community was highly productive.
When it came to water there was a higher than average conversion of research into patents compared to any other science discipline in the country.
Another cause for optimism was that South Africa had a very interactive National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) process. The NWRS was signalling a turning point.
He said South Africa had spent 14 years writing a water law that the world acknowledged was the best it had ever seen, "so much so that Professor Kadar Asmal (former minister of Water Affairs and Forestry) received the Stockholm Water Prize for it". Today the country had reached the point where it finally might have the strategy to implement this law.
He encouraged those present to heed Mahatma Ghandi's injunction to "be the change you want to see," adding: "If we, collectively and individually, become the change we want to see, then that change will definitely be realised".
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