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 more pronounced.

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 water-related risks.

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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), August 2016


Saliem Fakir
Head of Policy and Futures Unit, World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa


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