I’m sure most people have heard of the phrase “after the drought comes the flood”. It implies that the drought precedes the floods, which is well-known sequence of events around the world, but I can’t help to wonder what then precedes the drought. Could we have done anything differently to avoid a drought from affecting the lives of millions of people? In the South African context, there is no easy answer to that question because it’s most probably a combination of things that together creates a perfect storm. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2016 report, water crisis is not only the fifth time it has made the annual list that ranks the greatest risks to economies, environments and people, but water crisis is in the top 3 position for impact.

Firstly the water infrastructure in South Africa is aging fast, and on top of that maintenance and repair are often neglected. As a result the existing infrastructure is in a lot of places inadequate, and Non-Revenue Water being lost for the distribution system to the end-users, through leaks, pipe bursts or otherwise, account for a significant amount of water losses. Secondly South Africa is in itself already a chronically water stressed country with rainfall below world’s average, which also falls unevenly in different parts of the country and in different seasons, and not there and when it is needed the most. For example, despite Cyclone Dineo that brought rainfall to large parts of the country in February, the Western Cape province still witnesses dam levels today which are at record lows.

Water supply issues can thus not be solved by simply building more dams or creating more infrastructure, but also relies heavily on rehabilitating, maintaining and conserving the natural areas which form the critical catchments and “water factories” of the country. Moreover, efficient (operational) management of our supply systems and treatment works, and effective use and re-use of this valuable resource will be key to mitigate the impact of drought in the future.

The UN Water theme for World Water Day on 22 March 2017, 'Wastewater, The untapped resource', is therefore spot on. Water Re-use & water resource recovery remains one of the highest potential game-changers in building true resilience to droughts and improved water use efficiency in urban & industrial environments. South Africa needs to think innovatively about ways of reducing water demand and making water available, outside of the traditional engineering solutions of infrastructure development, if it wishes to sustain economic growth and maintain healthy freshwater ecosystems.

In short, we have to become a lot “smarter” in how we (re)use and manage our water within our countries and across boundary. Political and economic will ,are pivotal to achieve this. Water connects, it doesn’t separate – what manifests itself as a regional or local crisis quickly becomes a global problem. Water crises affect economies of all sizes. Climate change models predict significant changes to both rainfall and temperature in southern Africa, which will affect water storage negatively, so the pressure on water as a resource is unlikely to decrease any time soon. However, “smart water” can help us making tremendous steps into mitigating the impacts of a next drought. And let us not forget, after a drought….