A Delicate Balance: Water Scarcity in South Africa

Zachary Donnenfield
Institute for Security Studies, Water Research Commission, Frederick S. Pardee Center for Int. Futures
Publication Year:
May 04, 2020
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation

This academic report highlights the water disparities in South Africa and by analyzing the agricultural, industrial, and municipal sectors, recommends several important changes for the water industry to reach equal availability of water by 2035. 


South Africa is currently overexploiting its renewable water resources. Moreover, withdrawals are forecast to increase in all three sectors (agricultural, industrial and municipal). Meanwhile, much of the country’s water infrastructure is in disrepair and dam levels are dangerously low. This report presents a national-level forecast of water supply and withdrawals until 2035, before exploring alternative scenarios. It is possible to restore stability to South Africa’s water system, but it will take significant financial investment and political will.


Although the 2014–2016 drought has catalysed a national conversation and, to some extent, brought water security into the policy debate in South Africa, the drought did not cause water scarcity. What the drought did was highlight existing vulnerabilities in South Africa’s water system, and properly frame the magnitude of the challenge of ensuring water security for the country.

South Africa is a water-scarce country. Yet there are extant, affordable technologies that government, business and private individuals could employ to help realign supply and demand while ensuring water security for future generations.

South Africa’s water picture has not appreciably stabilised since the African Futures Project (AFP) – a collaboration between the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Frederick S Pardee Center (Pardee Center) for International Futures – published the first national-level supply and demand forecast for water in the country in 2014.

Conclusion and Recommendations: 

The prevailing conclusion of this report is that it is possible for South Africa to reconcile its national-level water system by using available technologies and policies. This research indicates that the country can bring demand in line with available supply through policies that incentivise efficiency (including tiered pricing), improve the quality of the country’s water infrastructure (including wastewater treatment plants) and increase the amount of groundwater used. However, as new technologies (such as desalination and renewable energy) become increasingly affordable, there are other solutions beyond what has been outlined here that could help close the gap between supply and demand.

That said, South Africa cannot afford to delay the implementation of more aggressive water policies. To avoid a state of national panic – similar to that which occurred during the energy crisis of 2014–2015 – the government will have to act immediately. In order to align its water sector, South Africa must:

• Implement water conservation and demand reduction measures: The country must do more to improve the efficiency of water use. This can be done through a combination of infrastructure repairs (to address non- revenue water), new building codes, incentives to install water-efficient appliances and a tiered water-pricing structure. Policy measures should be supplemented with campaigns to raise awareness about high levels of per capita water use and the inherent value of water conservation in a water- scarce country.

• Increase the amount of wastewater that is treated and reused: About 60% of the country’s wastewater in untreated and a survey of 88 municipalities found that more than two-thirds of the wastewater treatment facilities examined did not meet minimum quality control standards. A failure to efficiently address wastewater treatment and reuse could have devastating consequences for people, the environment and the economy. Progress here will not only improve the quality of South Africa’s water but also increase the supply.

• Increase groundwater extraction: Groundwater is likely an under-used resource in South Africa. Although there are no precise estimates of how much groundwater is available and where, the DWS estimate suggests that there is potential to significantly expand the amount of groundwater extracted. This could be particularly useful for the agricultural sector, where nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s water is used.

• Explore new technologies: This report stresses that there are available, affordable solutions to South Africa’s water problems. However, it did not explore more advanced technologies in as much detail.

• Desalination: Currently, desalination technology is prohibitively expensive for South Africa, except in very large, coastal metropolitan areas such as Cape Town, Durban and Nelson Mandela Bay (desalination currently accounts for less than 1% of South Africa’s total water demand). As the cost of desalination decreases, it will likely become an increasingly viable option for these major municipalities. However, desalination will not be able to address water scarcity in South Africa’s inland areas and will have a limited impact on the agricultural sector, and so likely will only play a small part in South Africa’s water future.

• Renewable energy: South Africa is almost entirely dependent on coal for its electricity needs. These thermoelectric power plants require large amounts of water for cooling and threaten to further harm the country’s water ecosystems. Increasing the amount of energy generated from renewable sources will reduce industrial water demand, lower carbon emissions and minimise water contamination from industrial activity related to coal production.

In 2002, UNESCO adopted General Comment No. 15, which states that ‘the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.’72 As the forces of climate change, population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation collide in South Africa it is vital that policymakers take aggressive measures to restore balance to the water sector.

However, it is equally critical that those policies are implemented with the understanding that the country is still working to overcome decades of systemic oppression. Finding the right balance between promoting general conservation among those who can afford it, while working to expand access to clean water for those who do not currently have it, will be difficult. That said, it is hard to think of a more important or worthy policy goal.



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