JOHANNESBURG: Valuing water is more than simply assigning costs to a scare resource—it is an essential step for transforming water governance to meet the needs of a prosperous future.
This was a recurring view from participants at the first regional discussion on water organized in South Africa as part of the High Level Panel on Water (HLPW) dialogues.
More than 100 representatives attended the May 30 meeting from a range of sectors including water, agribusiness, utilities and community groups from across the region, as well as representatives from around the globe.
World Bank special advisor Dr. Patrick Vincent Verkooijen said their research had shown that if “there is no change in the way we manage water, then (global) economic growth will drop by 6 percent.”
Global Water Partnership chairperson Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren, a former Minister of Environment in Mongolia, stressed that the issue was not just about valuing water as a commodity but about water governance. “We have to recognize that water is valuable; it is not a free commodity. If we do business as usual then by 2025 the number of people who are affected by water scarcity will rise from 1.7 to 5 billion.”
This was the first of five regional discussions on valuing water initiated by the HLPW, which is made up of 11 sitting heads of state and government. The meetings will collate comments on draft principles of water ahead of an HLPW meeting in August.
CEO of the Water Research Commission, Dhesigen Naidoo, said the HLPW and its activities had “significantly” raised the global dialogue on water.
“But we must make sure we are having the right conversation. What is missing is the view of tomorrow. If we are simply talking about meeting the minimum requirements, then we are missing the opportunity to completely transform … in both our attitude to water and the way we manage water,” said Naidoo.
He noted that Africa would be the most populous continent in the world by 2050, with an expected 50 megacities.
“Only three of these 50 megacities exist at the moment. We can create water-wise cities right from the start,” he added.
This includes rethinking “how we use water, how we recycle water and what water we use.” For example, Naidoo questioned the efficacy of using quality potable water to flush toilets.
The costing of water was an ongoing issue, but participants also warned that the question of cost needed to be raised against the “point where price is an inhibitor to your basic right to water.”
The intersectional nature of water was stressed—hence the need for political engagement at the highest level.
The May 30 discussion in Ekurhuleni near Johannesburg included ministers and deputy ministers from Water and Sanitation, Public Works and Energy.
“The vision and aspiration for water is the 17 SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and these make clear that the world must transform the way it manages it water—it needs political head engagement as well as other key public, private and civil society stakeholders,” said Verkooijen.
“Success for the HLPW can be only be determined when it motivates transformational action. Secondly, success is determined by whether it can support mobilization and advocacy for transformational finance and implementation.”
Various initiatives are already in place, including developing principles on valuing water that were discussed in South Africa.
“Valuing water is not a new concept. The challenge is to explicitly value water in its competing uses. Proper valuation simply provides a clearer picture of the trade-offs involved,” said Verkooijen,
Faith Muthambi, South African Minister of Public Service and Administration—standing in place of Water Minister
Nomvula Mokonyane—reminded participants that South Africa’s constitution declared access to water as a human right. “The right to clean water is therefore an obligation for government to ensure access for people.
“We want to see water priced for sustainability,” she said. “Water infrastructure is very important as a solution. We need partnerships to close the gap between water demand and supply by 2030.”
Her colleague, Deputy Minister of Energy Thembisile Majola, noted that the energy sector was a bulk user of water. “How do we improve our technology so that they use less water?” she asked, stressing the symbiotic relationship “We use water to create energy and we need energy to get water to where it needs to go.”
Delegates at the conference came from 14 of the 15 SADC countries, with only Seychelles not represented.
Dr Kenneth Msibi, SADC Water Division, a transboundary water policy expert, said the SADC was trying to unlock the potential for water as a catalyst for development.
“We cannot move forward if we think of it as business as usual,” he stressed.
“Unless we value the water, our ecosystems are going to degrade and cost so much more,” said Dr Sanjaasuren.
“We’re living on a planet with a population size that is growing rapidly. We will have more and more water tensions,” said Naidoo.
“There is an opportunity to first organize to meet the immediate needs within the SDGs and then to organize for the 10-billion world —not just to survive but also be prosperous,” he added.