When it comes to water, this is the “new reality” for South Africans: water will become more expensive; everyone, except those without access to piped water, must use less for the same activities; and all the country’s citizens, except the indigent, must pay for water and sanitation services.

This is the essence of the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu unveiled on Thursday, acknowledging the severe problems crippling her department.

It would cost nearly R900 billion to implement the plan to safeguard water security for the next decade and beyond.

“SA is facing a water crisis caused by insufficient water infrastructure maintenance and investment, recurrent droughts driven by climatic variation, inequities in access, deteriorating water quality and a lack of skilled water engineers,” the plan states.

This was having “significant impacts on economic growth and the well-being of everyone in SA”. Demand was surging from a rapidly growing and urbanising population, changing lifestyles and economic growth. “Climate change is driving the country towards a warmer and drier future, with predicted longer and more extreme droughts, and more intense floods. Climate change means there will be less water available to meet water needs.”

If demand continues at current levels, the deficit between water supply and demand could be 2.7-3.8billion cubic metres a year by 2030, a gap of 17% of available surface and groundwater. This is driven by low tariffs, inadequate cost recovery, overconsumption, inefficient use, wastage, leakages, inappropriate infrastructure choices like waterborne sanitation in a water-scarce country, inadequate planing and implementation and population and economic growth.

Delays in the implementation of Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project for Gauteng, the uMkhomazi water project Phase 1 for KwaZulu-Natal and the augmentation of the Western Cape water supply system “have significantly impacted on water security and socio-economies”.

“The recent water crisis in Cape Town serves as a stark reminder of the impacts of delayed action combined with extreme weather events.”

Achieving water security requires a “significant paradigm shift” that recognises the limitations of water availability, addresses the real value of water, ensures equitable access to limited resources and delivers reliable water and sanitation services for all.

The water mix, strongly dominated by surface water, must include increased groundwater use, reuse of effluent from wastewater treatment plants, water reclamation, desalination and treatment of acid mine drainage. Average domestic water use is around 237 litres per person per day – 64 litres more than the global average. This should be cut to 175 litres by 2023.

“The higher water use is partly due to municipal non-revenue water, which is currently at an unacceptably high 41%.”

Fifty-six percent of SA’s 1150 wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water treatment plants are in poor or critical condition with “significant implications for public health” and are in need of urgent rehabilitation.

“In some cases, repeatedly in the same municipality, failures in water supply and sanitation services continue, not least due to a lack of skilled and experienced technical staff. There are challenges in the effective operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation infrastructure by the department, water boards and other government departments and institutions.”

Raw water quality in rivers, dams, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and groundwater show ongoing deterioration, “posing a threat to economic growth, social development, heath and hygiene and aquatic ecological functioning”.

An increasing population, rapid urban expansion, widespread mining, increasing water storage and abstraction, the spread of invasive alien species and poor agricultural practices are driving this.

“Mining in strategic water source areas poses a threat to water security both in the short term but also in the long term.”

Water quality and quantity can be augmented by restoring and maintaining under-protected strategic water source areas and wetlands, which are often in a “poor condition”.

“The plan is most welcome because we’re in deep crisis,” said water expert Professor Anthony Turton. “But where will the money come from? The plan is based on institutional strengthening and investment but how will investment be attracted into the water sector if the perpetrators of past acts of plunder are not brought to book?

“The fiscus is unable to raise that amount of money so it will have to come from public-private partnerships but before that can happen we need to restore the rule of law and send a message to investors that their capital won’t be plundered.”

It’s encouraging that Sisulu “seems to have taken the corruption bit between the teeth as evidenced by the investigation into one of the water boards where large sums of cash have gone missing. “We must encourage her to do more of this, most notably in the case of municipalities that are failing such as Emfuleni.”

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, says while the plan moots the protection and restoration of ecological infrastructure, “it’s difficult to understand how these actions can be implemented next year or by 2021 or 2022 if water-use licences are still being issued to Category A mines (acid producing mines) within strategic water source areas and critical groundwater recharge areas such as Wakkerstroom”.