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The future of water: From your toilet to your tap and back again

The reality is many of us look at water like we do a takeaway container.

Water bursts from a brass spout with violent urgency. It foams through the tap angrily and on to a sprawling field. The stream fans out, forming veins that meet swampy arteries carved by footpaths in the grass.

After some time, a mother bearing a baby on her back approaches, swinging a plastic bucket. A bit later, three children holding empty Coke bottles wobble towards the tap across a wooden plank placed over the constantly churned earth.

Users make short trips to fill their canisters at the place where the valley creases like a frown. But apart from these visitors, the tap rages on alone. Unprovoked and unappeased, it spouts forth.

This tap is the Finetown informal settlement’s sole source for drinking, cooking, cleaning and washing. There’s no water in their homes, but it runs rampant and unchecked through their community.

About 40km away, water expert Mike Muller has finally emerged from a long day of meetings with representatives from the City of Joburg, surrounding municipalities, Sasol and Eskom. The reason: to plan how to “drought-proof” a system that provides water for more than 13-million people in four provinces.

Fed by the Vaal Dam about 60km south of Johannesburg, the waterways that comprise the Vaal catchment area supply water to Gauteng, Mpumalanga, the Free State and North West, according to the utility company Rand Water’s website. Its waters nourish farmlands and villages and also power the industry that makes Gauteng the economic powerhouse that it is.

“What we’re talking about at the moment is just making sure there’s enough water to provide to all the different people and interests who use it — whether it’s farmers, poor households, rich households or government offices,” says Muller, who is a visiting adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

But the dam and the rivers that feed it are already under strain and can no longer fill an ever-growing need. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, in which South Africa buys water from the land-locked country, is just one of the ways South Africa is trying to supplement the catchment’s supplies, according to the department of water and sanitation.

More strain is yet to come as the planet continues to warm. South Africa’s annual average temperature has increased by almost twice the global average in the past five decades, a 2014 article published in the online Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change reveals. And as the country gets hotter, it is also likely to fall prey to more extreme and unpredictable weather, including severe droughts more frequently.

“It’s very difficult to say what we can expect over a timescale of a decade. But over say 40 or 50 years, we do expect the climate to get likely drier than what we have now,” University of Cape Town hydrologist Piotr Wolski, whose work focuses on tracking rainfall patterns, explains. “Droughts of this magnitude will be more frequent. They won’t be once in 300 years; they’ll be once in, say, eight years.”

Parts of South Africa continue to battle the effects of one of the worst droughts in living memory. Although Cape Town may have averted taps running dry or what has become known as Day Zero, area dams contain only 20% of the water they should, according to the city’s website. And what water South Africa does have, it may not use well.

The average South African uses 237 litres of the life-giving stuff a day — almost 40% more than the worldwide average, says a 2017 report by the South African Water Research Council (WRC) that surveyed more than half of the country’s municipalities.

But much of that is trickling down the drain or seeping into the soil rather than being used productively. The nation wastes almost 40% of drinking water and of that more than half is because of leaks, a 2010 WRC report shows.

By all accounts, the tap in Finetown is one of many bubbling unused fresh water into its surroundings. “I always see this happening,” says Richard Nxumalo, who lives in nearby Ennerdale. “It happens in Finetown, in Kapok and in an informal settlement nearby. If the tap is broken people don’t even report it.”

Waste not, want not: Technology could take water from your toilet to your tap and back again. (David Harrison, Mail & Guardian)

Trevor Rajnarain is the operations manager at the Mvula Trust, a nonprofit organisation that focuses on water and sanitation. He says that although poorer households are often forced to conserve water, cities could do better at encouraging all citizens to be water-wise.

“Poorer households cannot afford wastage of any kind. The hardship related to obtaining the water ensures that they are conservative when it comes to usage, and water is usually used more than once,” he explains. “[But] cities need to improve the general understanding, awareness and impacts of drought amongst their inhabitants.”

In Israel, researchers found an almost 8% reduction in water consumption among households that had been targeted as part of water conservation campaigns, a 2016 studypublished in the Journal of Environmental Management shows.

Scientists posited that a similar national initiative might yield more social pressure to conserve and even better results as a consequence. In drought-proofing a city, “this could be the most important factor”, Wolski argues. “People have to be aware that water is a limited resource, and be able to adjust their behaviour accordingly.”

But water management expert Anthony Turton argues that the idea that there isn’t enough water to go around is the root of our problems.

“The paradigm of ‘water scarcity’ is based on the assumption that water is a stock; a finite volume,” he says. “That is a fundamentally flawed concept. Water is a flux — it moves in time and space. It is an infinite resource, but we are constrained by the way we think about it.”

Turton cites success stories in Australia where a substantial amount of used water is recovered each day. Despite being a dry continent, Australia’s policymakers had largely thought of water as a single-use commodity until the 1990s.

By then it became clear that treating water as though it was disposable wasn’t sustainable. The country’s dams and estuaries were a clear sign as sewage had already turned sections of the major Darling River a shade of St Patrick’s Day green after sparking an explosion of foul-smelling algae.

A similar fate has befallen sections of North West’s Hartbeespoort Dam in recent years, leading to a governmental clean-up effort. So Australians began to recycle their water. As part of this, grey water — or water used for bathing or laundry — as well as waste and rainwater was treated to make it drinkable again.

This kind of water was harvested, stored and purified before being released directly back into the drinking water supply in a process long used in Namibia, called direct potable reuse (DPR). By 2009-2010, Australia was recycling about 17% of its water, according to a 2012 government-commissioned report.

In South Africa, flush toiletsaccount for 20% to 40% of household water demand and about 50 to 70% of that from businesses, a 2010 department of water and sanitation report shows.

Is flushing your business at work draining an already strained water system? (Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Recycling grey water to fill this need could go a long way towards reducing consumption, the 2012 WRC report says. In Israel, recycling grey water for domestic and garden use reduced daily household consumption by between 26% and 41%, a 2011 study by the Israel Institute of Technology found. Water reuse will not be enough, though, if our cities don’t diversify their water sources.

Cape Town’s “Day Zero” dilemma is a prime example, Wolski says. The Mother City was too reliant on shallow dams that drew from mountain run-off water during winter rains rather than sourcing from major rivers. “You build other sources into the water supply for security.”

With phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project underway, Johannesburg will eventually have another water source to depend on besides the Vaal Dam and its rivers. But getting your water from another country isn’t without its hidden costs. Political complications in Lesotho have played a role in a five-year delay in the project’s completion.

Ideally, cities would create diverse water sources within their borders. Gaborone in Botswana has honed this strength, tapping into a nearby dam as well as groundwater supplies from several kilometres away to bring water to its residents.

“And now, because they don’t have enough water, they are planning to collect from the Zambezi River,” Wolski explains. The experts agree that the adage about not having all your eggs in one basket rings especially true when we have little or no control over the supply of a resource. Muller quips: “Water is either a gift from God or nature, depending on your beliefs.”