The Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme, Dr Ayodele Odusola;

Acting Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Mr Trevor Balzer;

Acting Director General of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Mr Ishaam Abader;

CEO of the Water Research Commission, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo;

Distinguished Guests;

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for inviting for me to address you at this august event this afternoon as we celebrate the seven innovators that accepted the challenge and put forward their ideas on how to address the water challenges facing our country.

In our country and the continent at large, water-related challenges are many and they are wickedly complex.

They are part of the currently fourfold global crisis that we face, which includes –

  • COVID-19;
  • deepening economic crisis;
  • multiple challenges related to socio-economic sustainability for families, households and communities, and
  • climate change.

When water delivery issues are being addressed new challenges arise in wastewater treatment, that also affect the ecological state of the receiving environment. Then there are the nexus issues of energy, food and water.

Agriculture uses 62% of our water resources, yet 30% of food produced is wasted before leaving the farm.

When we address our country's energy challenges, we sometimes forget that water is integral to the production of energy, and at the same time energy is vital for the delivery and treatment of water and wastewater.

To address these inter-related challenges that impact directly on the well-being of our citizens and our environment, we need a more holistic, integrated national plan, co-developed by government departments, academic institutions, civil society, labour and industry.

The White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation for South Africa, adopted by Cabinet in 2019, highlights the increased focus on innovation by government.

Among the policy intents is to adopt a whole-of-society approach to innovation and to improve inclusion and increase linkages across the national system of innovation.

Global change remains as a significant challenge to be addressed and the circular economy has been identified as a new area of growth for the country. I mention these together because water is integral to addressing these areas, in the context of one of the driest countries on the planet.

Water security was identified in the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) foresight exercise as a basis for a thriving society and economy. Water, although not explicitly in economic recovery plans, is the fulcrum on which our economy will turn.

A circular approach to using all our resources, including water, will not only aid in economic recovery that is greener and more climate friendly, but potentially contributes to a just transition to a low-carbon economy, which may address the inequalities in our society.

Decentralised systems for water, as highlighted in the NACI foresight report, are one means to bring decent services to the most marginalized communities in the country. Water is life; sanitation is dignity.

The DSI has, through a long-standing partnership with the WRC, sought to address the challenges of the water sector. In 2014 the DSI entered into an implementation partnership with the WRC for the establishment of the Water Technologies Demonstration Platform (WADER). This partnership has realised 30 demonstration projects addressing water savings, wastewater treatment and water quality, among other things.

WADER is now in the ideal position to be used as a technology accelerator to accelerate technologies to market. For this to happen government needs to enable the deployment of innovative technologies by the public sector.

DSI has initiated discussions with the regulatory department, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in this regard, but may need to expand the discussion to Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) as the rubber hits the road at municipalities.

The WRC and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) recently established a Water Technology and Innovation platform, and WADER was identified as having an important role to play in accelerating relevant and appropriate innovations and solutions to solve some of the most challenging problems for marginalised rural and urban communities.

A key challenge we face in our country is that, while our written policies on water are very advanced, actual transformation and implementation still remains relatively weak. We need to move decisively and also ensure that we significantly change the water licence dispensation which continues to be heavily skewed towards apartheid era beneficiaries.

The DSI, working together with the WRC and other players, remains committed to strengthening our national system of innovation to play its role in the management of our water resources. We are also acutely aware that we need to link our water resources to a just green transition with the development of water and sanitation technologies that meet the desperate social needs of our people.

The management of our water resources also needs to be linked to the Presidential District Development Model, so as to ensure people's participation, as well as fostering and supporting grassroots innovation in the management of our water and sanitation programmes.

However, at this juncture in the water innovation landscape, it is time to talk about a one-government approach to addressing our water challenges. This means all relevant departments need to come together and plan for 2030 to reduce the impact of the projected 17% deficit in our supply and to meet projected demand.

The most important consideration is to actually do things differently and not have the recommendations resting in reports on desks.

This will ensure that innovative approaches see the light of day, with government as an enabler.

Within the DSI ecosystem are the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), both with capability to address the water challenges with the national system of innovation, which includes other government departments and their entities such as the WRC and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

The DSI also partnered with the WRC on the implementation of the National Water Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap in 2015.

This signalled government's intent to address water research at a fundamental level, and crowded in funding from various national and international organisations to address challenges such as ecological infrastructure, transboundary water and big data.  Both of these are internationally funded initiatives, with the transboundary water and big data project having IBM as a partner for the training of graduates in data analytics.

The project highlighted the issue of data sharing, not only among local stakeholders but also among cross-border stakeholders.

In an increasingly data-rich world, the sharing of data will provide for strengthened decision-making to improve the lives of citizens.

The Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security, a Global Environment Fund project, led by SANBI, was partly conceptualised through a partnership between the DSI and the DEFF, looking at how to enhance land restoration by applying complexity thinking to the topic at both basic and applied research levels.

Through the Water RDI Roadmap, the DSI is funding the establishment of a community of practice in water-sensitive design, to train municipal officials on the topic in order to improve planning of our urban areas. Urban areas designed with water-sensitive design principles will lead to improved water management and contribute to lowering that 17% deficit we are going to face in 2030. 

I therefore call upon stakeholders to partner and join efforts in addressing the systemic and global challenge of COVID-19 pandemic and access to water and sanitation for all.

I encourage the sector to join the WRC in implementing COVID-19 Wastewater and Sanitation Surveillance Programme (provide samples, testing, data sharing and funding of the nationwide phase) and innovations demonstrated through its innovation platforms beyond COVID-19 to further mitigate the challenges of our water sector.

Early next year, the National Research Foundation (NRF) will be announcing two new research chairs under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) for the water sector, one for resource economics and one for the economic sustainability of water services.

To reiterate, the focus on economics is simply because water is an economic good and should be at the centre of economic development, and given the same importance as energy. These two chairs will contribute to the sustainability of the water and sanitation sector as they will place us on the road to improved cooperative governance and service delivery to our communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, water is a finite resource and the manner in which we are mismanaging it on a global and local scale means that it is becoming increasingly more expensive to provide potable water to communities.

I therefore would like to emphasise that water security is a priority for the upcoming DSI Decadal Plan and it is an area that needs to be addressed in partnership with DWS, COGTA, SALGA, WRC, SANBI, CSIR and TIA.  We are acutely aware that we will not be able to achieve our goal of inclusive economic growth and development if our water supply is constrained.

We need collaborative effort across all stakeholders, and innovation compacts between government, business, labour and civil society, to prevent Day Zero in 2030.

I must also say that water innovation not only addresses water challenges but also creates SMMEs and jobs. WADER has a track record for demonstrating water technologies, but now needs proper partnership to scale the offering and get these technologies to market.

Through an innovation compact, we have to ensure that the financing, and enabling policy and regulations, are in place to create a vibrant water economy in South Africa.

The DSI is ready to collaborate with DWS on the Water and Sanitation Masterplan as part of the economic recovery of South Africa, and to bring dignity to all our people.

Through science, technology, innovation and partnership we can make it possible.

I therefore commend the partnership between the WRC and UNDP and their courage in initiating the Water Innovations Challenge Awards. This will go a long way to restoring the dignity of those who were historically marginalised and did not have access to clean water and sanitation.  Furthermore, the initiative will assist the country in realising the 2030 Agenda, Sustainable Development Goals.

It will be a delight to me if the technologies that are recognised and receive awards today could be upscaled and be absorbed at local or municipal level, particularly using the District Development Model.

The DSI, WRC and other partners should establish and continue to support and invest in existing effective networks, partnerships and support instruments to facilitate sharing, scaling and uptake of technological and innovative solutions developed by Africans to address the African continent's challenges and build the required capacities – innovators, implementation partners and funding.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate all the innovators for the sterling job they have done. Well done. I also wish you well in future engagements with all the stakeholders through your innovations.

I also wish to thank the UNDP for its support and partnership.  To the UNDP, this should not be the only call for innovation or partnerships.  As you are aware, we have many challenges ranging from education and energy to food security, among others. It would be good to see innovation and technologies that are meant to address these challenges not end here, but continue to address challenges other than the water challenge.

I thank you for your attention.