Groundwater in the News

Tap into the power of young people.

14 June 2018, 3:29pm / Yazeed van Wyk

DROUGHT PROBLEM: South Africa’s water challenges start with being a semi-arid country characterised by low annual rainfall, high run-off and evaporation.
Youth month is a significant time for introspection on youth development, including progress made in the development of young people to come up with innovative solutions to our water crises.  South Africa remains one of the 30 driest countries in the world. The majority of the country’s population living in rural areas still have no access to safe drinking water and to make matters worse nothing at all in their close vicinity. One of the biggest challenges faced by the water sector is the thinning of the technical skills due to retiring engineers and scientists thus further propelling the water access and quality challenges. To close this gap, we as the community of expert practitioners have an ethical responsibility, to engage our youth in an organised effort to prioritize water science as career options. After all, it was the youth of 1976 that orchestrated one of the biggest protests in this country’s history that destroyed the legacy of inferior Bantu Education systems. And the answer to our future water security again lies at the hands of skilled youth, who should be seen as the main actors that will bring about sustainable water resource planning and management through technical, scientific and social expertise and interventions.

The water sector in most developing countries requires an enormous effort if it is to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals 6 (SDG6), to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. At a time of unprecedented challenges, the sector is significantly hindered by an overall shortage of skilled young people in the workforce. Developing and emerging economies have made efforts to cope with in-country workforce development through training, organisational development and implementing institutional frameworks. Yet, many water institutes still view workforce development in a linear fashion, without considering the needs of broader sector inclusion. While increasing capacity development is important, the real currency and sustainability lies in linking courses to sector skills planning and delivery systems for professional and career development.
In South Africa, the challenge gets even more complex: a semi-arid country characterised by low annual rainfall, high runoff and evaporation, underutilised underground aquifers, and a reliance on significant water transfer schemes from neighbouring nations. Regardless of these characteristics, South Africans continue using more water than what’s available. We are already using 98% of our available water supply, and 40% of our waste water treatment is in a “critical state”. South Africa will face difficult economic and social choices between the demands of agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centres. What’s more the effects of climate change and climate variability has already exacerbated the problem significantly (the current drought in Cape Town a typical example). Some of these challenges can be overcome if government and the private sector partner to develop effective policies and sustainable solutions. Managing the trade-offs based on comparative cost data across all economic sectors will help achieve the required water savings with minimum downsides to the economy. The blend of solutions will include technical improvements to increase supply (as well as measure to enhance productivity and efficiency), to balance competing demands on a finite resource, and to ensure that the country is able to meet the needs both today and in the future. However, this is easier said than done. To come up with these innovative solutions, we need a competent workforce equipped with the necessary skills to tackle the myriad of challenges we are currently facing in the water sector.
The major concern in South Africa however, is the lack of appropriately-qualified individuals with sufficient experience to implement the provisions of the National Water Act, 1998 (NWA), in order to ensure the achievement of integrated water resources management (IWRM). In addition, inadequate and fragmented implementation of transfer of knowledge and capacity has the potential to hinder endeavours to manage water resources in ways that address issues of equity, sustainability and efficiency, and contribute to social and economic development and the eradication of poverty. One of the significant efforts in dealing with capacity building and training (CB&T) challenges in the South African water sector has been the introduction of the framework programme for research, education and training in the water sector (FETWater) as a response to a 1998 study by the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organisation which revealed a marked lack of human resources and competencies in the local water sector. By facilitating alignment between capacity building agencies, prioritizing and developing relevant occupational qualifications, delivery and quality assurance systems with expert practitioners, FETWater networks has laid the foundation for a capable and professional workforce for the sector as per the National Skill Development Strategy and the National Water Resource Strategy version 2.
However, the lack of coordination of CB&T initiatives in the water sector has resulted in poor knowledge management, ineffective planning, duplication of effort and low return on investment. Currently, there is a plethora of education and training programmes which lack both currency and portability. Qualifications and certificates obtained often receive no recognition with regard to career progression or skills enhancement. The FETWater programme can be a flagship for governmental initiatives in tackling the skills shortage in the water sector, as it takes an occupationally directed approach to qualification development and aligning it with all the relevant sector professional bodies. This workplace based training is key in the success of developing relevant competencies in creating a critical mass of water scientists, practitioners and water use specialists  that needs to be incorporated into the annual sector skills plan.

A dedicated, national effort is needed to make the turn from a reactive, ad hoc system of skills development for the water sector, to a pro-active, futured oriented system. The sector should use FETWater as a mechanism for what can be achieved and show case its relevance to drive up the number of young people taking up water careers, through both the apprenticeship and getting accredited qualifications. We must also push harder to change the perceptions of water science as a profession, educating not only young people, but the general public about the great career opportunities and experiences on offer.
* Yazeed van Wyk is research manager: Groundwater and FETWater at the Water Research Commission.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Groundwater Division of South Africa