South African lessons on drought in run-up to UN Water Conference

The UN 2023 Water Conference is being held in New York from 22 to 24 March. One of the themes is drought. It’s an issue that’s increasingly problematic in the Netherlands, too. Today, Hans Waals of the Hollandse Delta water authority will be talking about drought and what the Netherlands can learn from the way South Africa tackles this problem.

Enlarge image In Zuid-Afrika wordt onderzoek gedaan naar de waterkwaliteit van een rivier.
Image: ©Blue Deal South Africa

In recent years, the Netherlands has found itself facing a phenomenon it hasn’t had much experience with: periods of extreme drought. This calls for a new way of thinking about water management, Hans Waals says.

‘We’ve always had dry years, but recent trends have placed us in a truly new situation. 2018 and 2019 were very dry years, while in 2022, Rhine water discharges fell to a historic low. On top of that, the eastern and southern Netherlands have a problem with bone-dry soil, while the freshwater in the western Netherlands is becoming seriously brackish.’

Waals goes on to explain: ‘At the same time we mustn’t get fixated on drought as such. Climate change is mainly resulting in extreme weather: long periods with no precipitation, alternating with bursts of extreme rainfall. The floods in Limburg in 2021 are a distressing example.’

Water issue is becoming more complex

In other words, the water issue in the Netherlands is becoming more complex. It is necessary not only to keep protecting the country against flooding, but also to ensure sufficient clean water supplies at times of drought. That’s why, in addition to sharing Dutch knowledge about water management, the Netherlands is keen to benefit from other countries’ expertise on approaches to this problem.

One country where such expertise is being gained is South Africa, which is part of the Blue Deal. The Blue Deal is an initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in collaboration with the Dutch Water Authorities, involving partnerships in 15 countries. Its ambitious goal is to provide 20 million people around the world with access to clean, sufficient and safe water. This goal ties in with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Waals, strategic consultant at the Hollandse Delta water authority, is Chief Operating Officer of the Blue Deal and in that capacity often works in South Africa.

Learning from each other

South Africa’s climate problems are comparable with those of the Netherlands. ‘South Africa, too, suffers from both drought and flooding. Lots of rain falls in the highlands and, if nothing were done to stop it, would quickly flow into the ocean. Instead of which, the rainwater is captured in large reservoirs, by farmers for example,’ says Waals.

‘But capturing rainwater is merely a first step,’ Waals continues. ‘Water still needs to be transported from regions with high rainfall to locations where there’s a greater need for water. So they’re now having to look at ways of adapting the infrastructure. In that respect South Africa can learn from the Netherlands.’

Conversely, the Netherlands can also learn valuable lessons from South Africa. ‘What they do really well there is involve all stakeholders in the water issue early on, including the agricultural sector, nature organisations and also the public. Interest groups get together and explain what’s at stake for them individually. Of course, everyone fights their own pitch, but along the way, mutual understanding is created. In the end, it sinks in to all parties that everyone stands to gain from good water management,’ Waals explains.

Scaling down water use in time

By way of example, Waals mentions a forum in Richards Bay on the east coast of South Africa, where the key issue was an impending water shortage. ‘The water management company predicted a water shortage after two months, meaning that water supplies to all users would have to be cut by between 30% and 50%.’

Enlarge image Hans Waals
Image: ©Blue Deal South Africa

‘At the meeting, the farmers and industrial users indicated that they could pre-emptively cut their water usage by 10% to 20% in anticipation of the threatened shortage. However, as a support measure, they wanted municipalities to ban residents from washing their cars or using sprinklers to water their gardens during the daytime. As a result, water supplies lasted until the next rainy season.’

Excellent teamwork with BZ thanks to Blue Deal

When involving local stakeholders, Waals finds he benefits a lot from collaboration with the Dutch embassy in South Africa through the Blue Deal. ‘Thanks to the initiative, there’s excellent teamwork between the Dutch Water Authorities and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We keep the embassy in Pretoria updated on our Blue Deal activities and vice versa. It’s great that we can quickly switch gears at both local and national level whenever necessary. The partnership with Dutch businesses is a good example. Their involvement through the Blue Deal boosts the use of Dutch software that incorporates data on weather forecasts in water management systems.’

Waals sees room for improvement when it comes to Dutch collaboration in South Africa, though. ‘We should make it easier to coordinate with other water initiatives. It would be great if we could hook up more easily with existing initiatives, whether they’ve been set up by the government or other Dutch organisations active in South Africa. And vice versa of course.’

UN 2023 Water Conference

The UN Water Conference will be held in New York from 22 to 24 March 2023. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is organising the conference together with Tajikistan. It is the first UN water conference to be organised in nearly 50 years. Read more about the themes of the conference: drought, flooding, drinking water, and democracy and water management.