RECONCEIVING THE WATER CHALLENGE: TURNING SCARCITY INTO ABUNDANCE
While there may be sufficient physical sources
of water, behavioural patterns often
lead to water scarcity. That which may be
abundant effectively becomes scarce through
waste, poor pricing, ineffi cient allocation or the
inability of human systems to keep up with the
latest technologies. However, institutions
can foster decisions that take us on a path
from scarcity back to abundance.
To assess the true sustainability of a resource you have to look
at both sides of the coin to fully appreciate water risk and
security as material issues on a country’s water balance sheet.
South Africa has done well in building engineering infrastructure
to get water where it is needed. It has produced abundance
from scarcity. For instance, because of the uneven distribution
of water, South Africa has a very high rate of basin transfers
to get water to where it is needed. There are 28 inter-basin
transfer schemes with a total transfer capacity exceeding
7 billion m3/annum. South Africa is the 30th driest country in
the world, although water resources are principally available
in the eastern part of the country.
The water scarcity in South Africa has been reduced through
signifi cant engineering infrastructure. While water access is
close to 94% for the entirety of South Africa’s population, leaks
and water theft place a lot of pressure on management systems
and the future availability of water.
Fixing these problems can offer lower cost options to build
additional dams and transfer schemes, even though in some
areas transfer schemes and dams will help alleviate water
scarcity problems. South Africa needs to do much more to improve incentives that drive a shift in water consumption
behaviour, and spur new innovation and technology in the
water sector to improve efficiency and productivity in the
use of water.
This raises profound questions about the exact nature of water
scarcity, as physical scarcity (what you can squeeze out of
nature) can be enhanced through good infrastructure and
technology and, in turn, turn scarcity into abundance.
Yet, the behavioural characteristics of the human system
can turn availability from abundance into scarcity simply by
under-pricing the resources; managing the infrastructure and
reticulation system poorly; and being unable to invest in new
infrastructure, innovation and technology.
It would seem that a system’s susceptibility to either scarcity
or abundance is a function of the degree to which human
systems are degraded or not sufficiently advanced and that the
dependence on supply purely from the functioning of the
natural system makes the problem of water security and access
We should shift away from solely focusing on water as
a physical resource, to how institutions can foster decisionmaking
that creates conditions that take us on a path of
scarcity to abundance. Both sides of the equation tell us the
extent to which water is a truly scarce resource, due to physical
limitations or human behavioural characteristics. These two
sides have to be connected better when planning for
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It is easy to think of the scarcity problem as a question of
resource or material scarcity. What behavioural economics
teaches us is that material scarcity can also be a result of
psychological and behavioural characteristics that filter through
decision-making. Material scarcity can be a paradoxical
outcome of resource abundance.
In other words, our desires and wants comprise a greater
proportion, and perhaps an infinite amount, compared to what
we can generate and satisfy from all these wants and demands
that society makes on the government and the economy, and
even individuals make on themselves.
Different attributes of the physical-human environment
interactions suggest that different management solutions need
to be devised to create more holistic outcomes.
For instance, abundance of water supply can be improved with
the construction of new infrastructure or through more efficient
technologies. But the slow pace at which these solutions are
introduced is often the result of institutional inertia, or simply
planners adopting a mindset that does not allow new ideas to
enter the realm of decision-making.
We also have the problem of bounded rationality – the way
information on new innovations or ways of doing things flows
and is assimilated within organisations. This also influences
how new ideas make their way into decision-making. A certain
cognitive block preserves the existing path dependence and
restricts the ability of the human system to be open to new ways
of doing things.
It is also possible that the simple intervention of introducing
water pricing could signal to firms that water is becoming a
constrained resource and leave it up to firms to come up with
the best way to introduce efficiencies or new sources of water
into the system. Pricing as a strategy may also induce firms or
utilities to break their path dependence on an existing system
and develop new management or technological innovations in
an existing water management system.
The point to recognise here is that, while tapping into the
physical resource through extensive engineering may have
been exhausted, there is still scope to create abundance
from scarcity if we also shift the focus to the institutional and
behavioural side of the water management system.
By all accounts South Africa is a rich country compared to
many African and other developing countries. That said,
it does not have infinite resources nor unlimited time. Poor
decisions, misallocation and misappropriation of funds merely entrench us in a scarcity trap and become the cause of further
impoverishment in our material well-being.
And so it is that material abundance can live paradoxically
and side by side with scarcity. This is why some countries do
more with less and other countries do less with more.
Following the success of a three-year sustainable business
partnership, the World Wide Fund for Nature South
Africa (WWF-SA) and Woolworths have extended their
partnership to accelerate sustainable business action
through selected Woolworths’ products and operations.
The outcomes of the first partnership proved that the
private sector and the NGO sector can work together
on common interests, with far-reaching benefits for both
sectoral organisations and their stakeholders.
This second partnership will seek to improve the
stewardship of water resources nationally; explore
low carbon pathways; reduce the potential negative
impacts of agriculture; improve seafood and in
particular aquaculture sourcing; and reduce food waste
throughout the supply chain. Because the greatest
negative environmental impact occurs at the beginning
and end of the value chain, the partnership will focus on
these stages in the chain.
Read more about Woolworths’ sustainability journey).
Source: World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA),