Water lessons from South Africa and China

They are two countries facing very different challenges, but South Africa and China are starting to exchange experiences of water management – and the social and environmental issues it can raise. Mike Muller asks what they can learn.

South Africa and China are a long way apart and face very different challenges; China, a huge world power with the fastest growing economy in the world; South Africa, a small country with a population the size of an average Chinese province, growing slowly.

In water matters, they appear just as different. China has twice as much water per person and boasts the world’s fourth biggest river although it faces huge water challenges in the dry north of the country. Meanwhile, the water of South Africa’s largest river, the Orange, has only 1% the flow of the Yangtze but has to be shared between four neighbouring countries.

Yet, judging from the number of exchange visits of ministers and officials, China and South Africa believe that they share some common problems. Indeed, after visiting China, former South African minister of water affairs and forestry Ronnie Kasrils wrote an article praising the Three Gorges Dam which was published in China’s Peoples Daily.

In it, he considered the message of Emperor Qin’s famous Terra Cotta Army for the Three Gorges Dam project: “You can build a masterful infrastructure but if it does not form part of a broader strategy for the future, it is but a matter of time before it turns to dust … this vast infrastructure project only makes sense in the context of a country’s overarching social and economic development policy.”

He noted the intention of the project to contribute to the transport and energy needs of the country as well as to providing flood protection and water supplies. And while he recognized the social and environmental challenges it presented, he concluded by wishing the project well.

In these comments, the mutual interest of South Africa and China in water become clear. South Africa is interested in how China has integrated water into its development policy. Meanwhile China looks to South Africa for experience on dealing with the social and environmental challenges of water management.

The way that South Africa has dealt with water makes it a valuable case study for China. Because of South Africa’s political transition to democracy in 1994, a major reform of water management was introduced in a “big bang” approach. Many innovations were introduced around the same time, set out in the 1997 National Water Policy and codified in 1998 in the National Water Act.

South Africa’s challenge is not just water scarcity but the fact that its water is poorly distributed. The main economic activities and much of the population are high up in the centre of the country, away from main rivers. Therefore, water for people and industry has to be brought from far away while their waste water pollutes local streams and affects downstream water users.

The need to protect the river environment while meeting growing needs makes South Africa interesting for China because it has already implemented key water management innovations – such as rigorous standards for the treatment of urban waste water – that China is now considering on a larger scale. It also has a long-established Water Research Commission, funded by water users, to ensure a flow of the knowledge needed for such activities.

South Africa has also come to terms with the need to protect the river environment. Its water law makes a unique provision for an “environmental reserve”, water that has to be left in the river to maintain its ecology and cannot be allocated for use. This provision for environmental flows is also something that China is considering as it confronts the challenge of ensuring that its rivers do not dry up or become sewers. South Africa can offer extensive practical experience into the methods used to determine how much water is required to sustain the environment.

South Africa also has experience in the controversial business of transferring water from one river basin to another. It takes water from the Orange River at its source in the highlands of Lesotho to Johannesburg from where, after use, it is discharged northwards, flowing down the Limpopo River into the Indian Ocean instead of into the Atlantic. Indeed, many of South Africa’s rivers are interconnected in order to bring water to where it is needed.

But there are other important lessons.

While South Africa has shunned pressure from Western governments and businesses to privatize its water supply services, it has nonetheless made extensive use of the private sector to finance and build its water infrastructure. So China must be interested in the way that it was able to finance its Lesotho Highlands Water Project (at US$3billion, its equivalent of the Three Gorges project) without using the government’s budget.

This was possible because water users – both domestic and commercial – have to pay for their water and the utilities responsible are expected to charge the full cost of water supply. With this policy in place, local and foreign banks queued up to finance the project, an approach that has been followed in a number of other large and medium-sized water developments.

Funding from capital markets may not presently be important for China with its huge cash surpluses. But where the South African experience is relevant is the impact of making users pay the true cost of their water.

In the 1970s, doomsayers were already warning that South Africa would run out of water within 25 years, by 2000. But in that year, they were still making the same prediction, now saying that South Africa would run out of water by 2025. Consumption has slowed significantly and is continuing to increase only modestly despite rapid urbanisation. In part, this is because water users know that they have to pay the costs of increasing their supplies and, since they could see that costs would rise in the future, they acted to limit consumption.

As a result, the national electricity generator switched to dry cooled power stations, saving a substantial amount of water. Industrial firms such as Mittal Steel have moved to 100% recycling to reduce water consumption and control pollution. Even the size of city plots on which South Africans’ houses are built has been reducing rapidly – and smaller gardens have seen reduced water consumption. Now South Africa is considering implementing pollution charges, to further encourage clean production and reduced water use by industry.

Another area in which South Africa faces acute challenges are in the social domain, a consequence of the apartheid policy which kept most black South Africans unskilled and out of the economy until 1994.

An important objective of the new democratic government has been to ensure that social needs for basic water supply and sanitation are met. This is particularly important in a country which, as a result of its divided history, is amongst the most unequal in the world.

Here again, post-1994 South Africa was in the vanguard. After studies had found that people in poor communities were turning to unsafe water sources rather than pay even a dollar a month for clean water, the South African government introduced changed its policy of requiring some payment from all users. Local municipalities are now subsidised to provide a free basic water supply, currently 25 litres – one large bucket-full – per person per day. To support this policy, innovations in pre-paid water metering are being made in some cities which automatically provide the first six kilolitres free, although this is still controversial.

In all of this, an important lesson that has been learnt is that the most effective water management measures are those that send the right signals rather than trying to control all behaviour administratively.

But another controversial social dimension of water policy is the approach to people affected by water resource development. South Africa’s first minister of water affairs, Professor Kader Asmal, was chairman of the World Commission on Dams, which was widely believed to have opposed the construction of new large dams. However, South Africa is committed to building more dams to provide the storage it needs to deal with its variable rainfall and river flow and is pressing for other African countries to be helped to do the same.

South Africa accepted, however, that there had been problems in the past. Clear policy was established in 1994 that people affected by major infrastructure development should not be worse off afterwards. To ensure this, they should be given cash compensation for lost income, new houses to replace dwellings lost or new farm land where land is lost to project development.

This was of course relatively easy to do in Lesotho, where fewer than 10,000 people were directly affected, while China’s Three Gorges dam has displaced more than a million. But the principles – and the approaches they lead to – remain the same. And indeed it was the visit to the areas along the Yangtze where entire new towns had been built for those displaced that led minister Ronnie Kasrils to express his support for the way the project was being handled.

Looking forward into the future, many areas in South Africa are moving to a situation where all their water resources are fully developed and new water needs can only be met if old activities change the way they use what they have. This situation has already arisen in parts of China.

Similarly, both China and South Africa are vulnerable to the potential impact of climate change on their water resources – the western parts of South Africa are expecting significant reduction in rainfall and river flows over the next few decades.

South Africa has addressed these challenges by introducing flexibility into its National Water Act; as water availability changes, allocations can be changed. A National Water Strategy, reviewed every five years, sets out priorities for management action and water allocation as well as for infrastructure development.

But as important, South Africa has not accepted the international recommendation that responsibility for water management should be devolved to the river basin and local government level. While legislation allows for functions to be delegated to regional water agencies, the government retains control over water as a vital national asset – and its legislation requires is to maintain a national water resource strategy to ensure that water contributes optimally to sustainable social and economic development.

In that last provision lies another shared lesson. Water is a strategic resource for a modern society, an indivisible national asset that must be used wisely if the society is to prosper.

The author:  Mike Muller, a civil engineer by training, was Director General of Water Affairs and Forestry from 1997 to 2005. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

Homepage photo of Blyde River Canyon, by Cynthia Cavalcanti