Owing to SA’s dwindling water resources, South Africans must seriously consider using recycled water for basic needs. The reality is that water stressed-countries have long resorted to using grey water for drinking, cooking and washing.

If 300,000 Namibians can use recycled sewage water for drinking, what reason do South Africans have to pooh-pooh the idea. After all, we are rated by the World Bank as among 30 dry countries in the world that will become a desert in 30 years unless we start saving water now.

According to Josef Menge, author of Treatment of Wastewater for Re-use in the Drinking Water System of Windhoek, while certain people are of the opinion that re-used water is of a better quality than the water reticulated to millions of consumers, the principle is still rejected by many the world over. Why is it, then, that Windhoek, for the past 35 years, is still the only city in the world directly reclaiming treated wastewater effluent for drinking water?

Situated in the centre of one of the most arid countries in Africa, Windhoek, with perennial rivers either 500km to the north or south, mainly depends on water supply from boreholes and three surface dams in ephemeral rivers some 60km to 200km away. To supply water from further away through the north-eastern water carrier is not economically feasible.

High population growth rates over the past 100 years have increased the demand for water. Supply authorities had to develop new resources as existing sources were depleted. Repeated periods of erratic rainfall ensured that direct reclamation (recycling) continued to play an important role in augmenting the Windhoek water supply.

The first reclamation plant started in 1968 with a capacity of 4,800m³ a day. Since then, the reclamation process has undergone various improvements.

In SA, the level of water consumption is skewed, depending on the nature of the business the water is used for. Agriculture, for instance, uses 62% of our resources to irrigate crops. In a country where drinking water is fast becoming a luxury, the consumption of such huge volumes of water by one industry is implausible.

Last month, SA hosted a historic three-day world summit in Durban. Attended by think-tanks in the water sector, including the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong-kim, the international summit brought to the fore the question of wastewater as an obvious alternative to the world’s water woes.

President Jacob Zuma set the scene for a vigorous debate during his opening address when he warned that the "bleak" 2017 UN World Water Development Report required world leaders to urgently prioritise the improvement of access to potable water and sanitation services. The report, he said, should draw attention to the dismal global status of water and sanitation and inspire commitment to action by world leaders to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

This raises the question as to what countries with myriad water challenges should do to deliver water to their citizens.

It’s about time that governments reprioritise water and puts it at the top of their budgetary systems. The current trend is to make water the last national priority and to relocate small budgets that have been allocated to the resource to other programmes.

It is for this reason the UN’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in SA in 2002, mandated countries to halve their socio-economic challenges by 2012 through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Indeed, all countries pledged themselves to deliver to their citizens basic services, such as water, sanitation, health, housing, education, etc.

However, at the Durban summit, the question of resorting to wastewater, could not be skirted. Zuma observed, however, that a mere 147 countries have met the MDGs’ drinking water targets; 95 countries have met the sanitation target; and only 77have met both.

Why are governments, despite repeated warnings by experts, putting water at the bottom of their priorities, seemingly as an insignificant part of socio-economic development?

It is incongruous for any government to try and address socio-economic issues without due regard to the importance of the role played by water. Water is life and it is central to development. No country can justly claim success in their development without prioritising water.

It is for this reason that at the Durban summit, the African Ministers Council on Water, a conglomeration of African ministers in charge of water on the continent, signed a declaration that commits them to the prioritisation of water.

According to Loddon Shire Council, a local government area in Victoria, Australia, "on-site wastewater management issues are exacerbated in unsewered towns and those areas serviced by reticulated water supplies or a licence to extract water from waterways. Provision of reticulated water reduces the imperative to conserve water, compared to rainwater-only supply. This tends to result in greater household water use, leading to larger volumes of wastewater being discharged, beyond the intended capacity of the system and disposal area".

"The visible impact of poor on-site wastewater management has been masked in recent years due to the dry conditions. However, in average and higher rainfall years, the impacts of poor wastewater management can be seen in street drains and runoff into neighbouring properties."

Although SA is a relatively young democracy, in less than two decades the country has passed progressive water laws that have enhanced the right of all its citizens for access to potable water. Water is now a constitutional matter that guarantees every citizen the right of unhindered access to water and decent sanitation.

Through the National Water Act of 1998, the Department of Water and Sanitation seeks to address the deficiencies of the past on all matters related to water. The apartheid government excluded black rural communities the right of access to water and decent sanitation. Consequently, the post-1994 government inherited a legacy of between 12-million to 14-million South Africans, particularly in rural areas, who were deprived of their right of access to drinking water and decent sanitation.

The hapless communities in 14,000 villages around the country watched helplessly as water was reticulated to white farmers for agricultural purposes while they (blacks) contended with sharing untreated water with animals. Given our achievement as a young democracy, it’s about time that we disabuse ourselves of the archetypal ego that makes us look down on treated wastewater effluent for drinking.

Khumalo is a content producer in the Department of Water and Sanitation.

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