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The severity of the continental water crisis calls on the private sector to take the initiative. Smart water management is not only the right thing to do – it’s the profitable thing to do.

By Kumi Naidoo. Illustration by Lisolomzi Piloki

Changing rain patterns and increasing water scarcity, both of which result from climate change, will have major consequences on the health, wellbeing and socioeconomic development of large and small countries around the world. An estimated 2.4-billion people, one-third of the world’s population, live in water-scarce areas and this figure is likely to increase to two-thirds by 2025.

Africa will be especially badly affected, as it is already home to the largest number of water-stressed countries on the planet. We need an immediate and strategic response, with government, civil society and business each doing its part.  There is a major role for the African business community, which has been largely absent from water-security efforts. Business has the resources and expertise necessary to spearhead the drive for bigger and better efficiency of water use. Business must realise that water, like energy, is the fuel that drives its business activities. 

As a South African I feel very strongly about water. My country is enduring the worst drought it has experienced since 1982. It has left 6 500 rural communities facing severe water shortages; the government has declared four out of nine provinces disaster areas.  Farmers are particularly hard-hit: maize production has fallen to a third of expected levels, which will have knock-on effects for the whole region, especially among the poor, with maize prices hitting record highs this year. Neighbouring Zimbabwe is no better off and further north more than 10-million Ethiopians are facing severe drought.

The fact that this drought seems to have caught us by surprise points to a bigger problem in terms of how we build resilience and respond to future climate change. The challenge is far broader in scope than the current emergency and could undermine Africa’s socioeconomic development, leading to social conflicts and causing further damage to already marginalised communities. We are facing a systemic challenge that requires a strategic response by all actors and on all levels. 

South Africa’s ActionAid recently published a report – Running on Empty – which highlights the urgency of the water crisis. The report states that by 2030 water demand will outstrip supply by 17% and says South Africa’s largest cities will run out of water.

We often forget the fact that water is unlike other resources in that it is essential for life and we simply cannot survive without it. Although the report focuses on South Africa, it identifies challenges that apply to the whole southern African region and also other countries faced with similar problems.

The report highlights the need to ramp up water efficiency immediately as one of the most effective responses to the crisis. This approach would mirror how we think about energy efficiency, against the broader backdrop of the energy transition, or resource efficiency when we design products. Let’s look at energy as an example. We need to move to a 100% renewable energy system, but we can achieve that only if we ramp up energy efficiency in parallel, which helps reduce the quantity of energy that we need. This is a no-regret option. What is more, it is also an option that has led to an enormous amount of innovation. Numerous companies have invested in energy-efficient solutions and have benefited, both by selling more of their products and in their own operations by saving on energy costs. Why do we not see the same response when it comes to water?

The Running on Empty report highlights a wide range of water-saving technologies that are available and that can be rolled out in all sectors almost immediately. We need to focus our minds and efforts and use the best thinking available in sustainable design. For example, agriculture could save 30% to 40% of water just by moving to more efficient irrigation systems. Municipal and domestic users could save 12% to 30% of water by preventing leaks and adopting more efficient technologies, such as double flush toilets and rain water harvesting.

Information on potential savings in the industrial sector was more difficult to come by because of a lack of transparency, but the study shows that if the South African industry improved the efficiency of its operations by 10%, this would free up basic water supply for 13.7-million people. This would, of course, bring significant immediate and local benefits, while also addressing the future supply-demand gap.

While all actors need to recognise collectively the risk and take immediate action, the sector that should be leading on these efforts is the business community because it is the biggest consumer of water.

Last month the Carbon Disclosure Project in South Africa released the results of its annual water survey, in which 83% of companies interviewed said that their direct operations are exposed to water-related risks and more than 70% experienced detrimental water effects in 2015.

But the response to date does not match the severity of the risk. This indicates that there must be a shift in mindset within the business community: the private sector needs to comprehend fully the critical importance of action. Then it needs to act on delivering solutions to the water crisis in the form of innovative-designed infrastructure and products and radical behaviour change across society. There are many quick and easy steps we can take today that will give us the time to deliver longer-term solutions, such as better infrastructure drawing on the cutting edge thinking and practice in architecture, engineering and spatial planning.

Climate change and water scarcity are the two big challenges facing Africa in the decades to come. Climate changes and water scarcity are already wreaking havoc for millions of people. But these challenges also offer amazing opportunities to those who are brave enough and smart enough to act today and invest in solutions. These actions can save money and improve social conditions. They will also have a direct effect by reducing the broader socioeconomic risks. The business community has so far largely been absent from the debate on water and this has to change. As on climate and energy efficiency, positive outcomes await those who are willing to take the first steps in the right direction.

This story was originally published in Ogojiii issue 6 in early 2016.

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