Man with friends pouring water from a jug at restaurant

As President Jacob Zuma launched the United Nations World Water Development Report 2017, stakeholders asked if South Africa’s water scarcity is helping to drive new forms of partnership within the private sector.

Speaking on behalf of the Global High-Level Panel on Water (of heads of state), President Zuma shared his thoughts on the global water situation yesterday, stating “We have the potential to create new and more positive economic and social developmental pathways”, making reference in part to the building of partnerships. The President was addressing a global audience hosted by the South Africa Water Sector for World Water Day on 22 March in Durban.

With more than one billion people in the world currently receiving water and wastewater services from the private sector, it was important for the ensuing discussion to address the question: could the private sector play a role in partnerships for water management in South Africa, differing from current practice? This would, among other things, lead to tapping into wastewater as a resource for various uses which was a key message from the United Nations World Water Development Report which the President launched in 2017.

Speaking in a debate at the same event, Martin Ginster – who heads up water management at Sasol, and co-leads work within the Strategic Water Partners Network (a public -private -civil society partnership) – gave some examples of how the private sector is already involved in a diversity of exploratory projects using non-traditional models of collaborating with government and civil society.

These models of collaboration go beyond the private sector carrying out measures to comply with regulation; delivering on water management contracts; or providing corporate social responsibility funds to government and NGOs. For example, through the Strategic Water Partners Network (SWPN), corporates in South Africa, working with the Department of Water and Sanitation and other stakeholders, are rolling out an innovative irrigation water management system that is so far saving an amount of water (55 million m3) annually that is about half the consumption of Nelson Mandela Bay. Mr Ginster pointed out that the intention goes beyond this water saving result, but that this and other projects bear the philosophy of developing a joint understanding of the precise water problems to be addressed, joint trials of solutions to solve the identified problems and transparency of intent and results by the partners.

Against a backdrop of an estimated 40% of public-private contracts prematurely cancelled in Africa, and similarly in South Africa where such public-private partnerships are not replicated, it was refreshing to see participants at the event addressing an old elephant in the room – trust between the public and private sector.

Nandha Govender, head of water management at Eskom, another co-leader at the SWPN, said that trust is a huge obstacle for public-private partnership. An emergent conclusion from the discussions was that no amount of contract sophistication can replace trust needed to enable public and private organisations working together. Mr Govender said that examples of collaboration, such as a Mine Water Coordinating Body in the Mpumalanga coal mining area, where coal mine companies and the government have carried out joint problem and opportunity analyses and are testing financial and institutional models for reducing pollution impacts from mining in the long term, enable such trust. This collaboration was borne out of the work of the SWPN and the relevant parties.

Even with growing water scarcity in South Africa, it appears that the public and private sectors in our country are pathfinders in developing collective action partnerships (and not just transactions) that enable a trust-building environment for sustainable public-private -civil society partnerships.

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