Green economy may offer solution to rebuilding SA

Columnist Bonani Madikizela
Columnist Bonani Madikizela
Image: FILE

On August  9 1956 courageous women of South Africa decided they had  experienced enough oppression and exclusion in the economy, which subjected them to living in abject poverty.

Seeing how their dignity was undermined through the discriminatory laws of the apartheid system, they took it upon themselves to march and face the daily challenge upfront.

That was the struggle for women emancipation which continues hitherto, 26 years into democracy.

Unemployment in South Africa stands at about 30% and it is likely to get worse as we battle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Globally, it appears that women and the youth are bearing the brunt of job losses.

Small women-owned businesses are extremely vulnerable to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus. The knock-on effect is worse in communities, particularly in peri-urban and rural areas.

The chances that these businesses will ever be resurrected post Covid-19 are limited without undergoing expensive transformation to adapt to the new normal.

It is encouraging that South Africa and other countries across the globe have renewed their commitments towards green economic recovery.

The economic recovery and reconstruction plan puts emphasis on socio-economic infrastructure development, including water.

South Africa has already allocated about 98% of its water supply and moving towards surpassing the available water supply by estimated 17% in 2030.

Noting that there is no economic development that can flourish without relying on the guaranteed supply of water of acceptable quality. Job creation efforts are facing a huge challenge, perhaps worse than the energy crisis.

It is for this reason that economies around the world are looking for opportunities within the green economy — characterised by resource recovery or circular economy principles.

This is sometimes called regenerative economy which is based on zero-waste generation.

Zero waste indirectly means cleaner water will be left in the environment that continues to support, directly and indirectly, business and society.

The mainstreaming of a green economy in the country’s economic development, legislation and politics must become more urgent than ever before.

The UN  Environmental Program defines the green economy “as an economy that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”: Simply put the green economy is one that is low in carbon footprints, resource efficient and socially inclusive.

This is regarded as a sustainable and equitable economy as it:

  • provides social and economic benefits for current and future generations, by contributing to food security, poverty eradication, livelihoods, income, employment, health, safety, wellbeing, equity, and political stability; and 
  • is based on circular material flows, clean technologies, and renewable energy, to secure economic and social stability over time, while keeping within the limits of one planet.

South Africa's  National Water Act was founded on the basis of sustainable development and monitoring of the nation’s water resources quality. It recognises the environment not only as the source of water but gives a right to it to be allocated a share of the water budget .

Sustainable development demands that developments are not executed at the expense of the water needs for humans and environment, therefore a balanced approach that ensure no degradation of water resources beyond the agreed threshold.

Currently, there are several new concepts such as circular, donut economics ecological infrastructure, nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based adaptation that can assist us in achieving the sustainability goals.

The Water Research Commission has developed tools and know-how in almost all of these domains to ensure a greener future where nature and society can co-exist. While sustainable development is not a new call, the Covid-19 seems to have reminded the global community about water security and reasons why environmental health is critical and must be central to developmental efforts, hence a focus on economic recovery that includes the untapped opportunities associated with green economic principles.

In recognition of the economic developments and societal dependence on nature, the UN in 2019 called for the new decade to be dedicated to restoration of ecosystems. This supports several SDG Goals, that call for restoration of the landscapes (Specifically Goals: 6, 13, 14 and 15).

In South Africa, the limited water resources (from mountain areas to the ocean), on which the economy depends are all degraded well beyond 65% and the situation is worsened by climate change and uncontrollable spread of highly thirsty alien and invasive plants as well as uncoordinated settlements.

Again, as in 1956, brave women and youth took it upon themselves to start small businesses where they convert water pollution challenges (be it water hyacinth, siltation, salt harvesting, plastics) into green job creation opportunities. These small businesses are on their growth path with a great future as they also provide nature-based solutions — they require all the support that they can get. SMMEs are critical employers and flexible, therefore can drive viable green economy, but need to be initially resourced.

It is critical that detailed investigations, development and demonstration of viable business propositions are done. The Water Research Commission in partnership with other green innovative organisations have and continue to produce guiding tools on how to generate green jobs in water management, sanitation and agriculture.

When the natural capital is degraded to the tipping point or beyond the threshold, the services it used to provide decline or even stop. 

While it is accepted by policy-makers, private sector and society that “water is life”, stakeholders very often do not adequately invest in sustainable management of these resources until disasters strike. Prevention of further degradation of our water resources is in our hands.

Bonani Madikizela is a Research Manager at the Water Research Commission and writes in his own capacity.


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