Dr Anthony Turton: SA water crisis is “existential threat” to national security and economy

South Africa is in the grip of a serious national security crisis on the water front. This is according to Dr Anthony Turton, who is a specialist in water as a national security risk. He says: “We have a profound, profound problem in water in South Africa. We are deep in a water crisis. And the very foundation of this water crisis is an existential threat to the security and well being of the national economy in terms of job creation, in terms of its ability to raise capital, to grow the economy in the future and of course the ability to trigger social unrest.” He shares with BizNews the measures that Government should implement to make South Africa an investment prospect again.


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By Chris Steyn

South Africa is in the grip of a serious national security crisis on the water front.

This is according to Dr Anthony Turton, who is a specialist in water as a national security risk.

He says: “We have a profound, profound problem in water in South Africa. We are deep in a water crisis. And the very foundation of this water crisis is an existential threat to the security and well being of the national economy in terms of job creation, in terms of its ability to raise capital, to grow the economy in the future and of course the ability to trigger social unrest.”

Dr Turton says: “it’s also a major crisis in terms of just the humanitarian side, and also of course commercial, you know, the survival of businesses”.

He says part of the crisis is “the total collapse in our sewage management systems” – with the country facing a sewage “catastrophe” of almost “astronomical” proportions.

Read more: Cry the soiled country: SA swamped by sewage

“…this is really where our existential human risk is coming from now, because now we’re starting to see things like, for example, the recent cholera outbreak, which is all directly correlated to sewage contamination in rivers,” he adds.

“…not only have we run out of water, we’ve lost our capacity to dilute the sewage that we have…And at the same time, we’ve lost our institutional capacity and the capacity of the state at local municipal level to self-correct…we are deep in a crisis.” 

Asked what advice he has for government on urgent measures to combat the crisis, Dr Turton says:  “Well, I think the first thing that they need to do is accept that they have a crisis. You know, at the moment, most of the rhetoric coming out of government is deflection. So, for example, you’ve seen a lot of deflection onto the public. They say, oh, no, the public behaviour is not good enough. They use excessive amounts of water. And then they talk about the rich people, you know, with swimming pools, and then the poor people, you know, that whole sort of usual rhetoric, which, of course, is unhelpful.”

Read more: SA water crisis: Gov report reveals grim state of infrastructure and contaminated drinking water

The second step would be to “depoliticise” water as a matter of urgency. “We have to take the politics out of water and we have to therefore look at it as a technical issue because it is a technical issue. And part of the problem is it’s been so politicised that politically connected people have now infiltrated into the management of the water and they are in general technically incompetent but they are very often connected to criminal syndicates. So we have to depoliticise water and we have to then hire and fire people based on technical competence and not on loyalty or political affiliation.”

Thirdly from a business perspective, “we need to understand that water risk is a fundamental part of the investment profile” of a country. 

“South Africa as it currently stands is not particularly investable. And one of the reasons, well, there are many reasons why it’s un-investable, but one of the reasons is why would any entrepreneur invest significant sums of capital into upgrading whatever factory or plant they own, where firstly there’s no guarantee on their water supply and…because every five years they’re at the whim of some bureaucrat who’s going to maybe alter their water use license, or cost millions of rands to apply for your water use license each time. So the onerous restrictive nature of the water use licenses is absolutely a major risk to investment. 

Read more: South Africa says cholera cases reported in five provinces

“And then of course the whole thing about the fact that the water system has failed. That’s not failing, it’s not going to fail, it has failed. And because it has failed, we need to restore confidence in the fact that we are on top of it, we understand what the problems are.”

Lastly, from a political perspective, Dr Turton would like Government to stop viewing the private sector “as the enemy to be controlled or to be vanquished” and to reach out to the private sector “as a partner for development, as the engine of growth, as the place that does more than just create jobs?”

He points out that the private sector also creates solutions. “It also resolves complex problems. And yes, it needs to be regulated and it can be regulated and it’s willing to be regulated, but in a fair way. So unleash the power of the private sector, once again, stop constraining the private sector with these restrictive regulatory functions that cannot effectively be policed. And in fact, in the case of water, more often than not, based on inaccurate numbers and data that cannot be defended in the court of law. So we need to sort of kind of liberalise, if you like, liberalise the regulatory environment for water…”

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