According to the latest data from Statistics South Africa, the majority of poor South Africans live in rural areas, and still have limited access to basic services and amenities such as clean and safe water, affordable and clean energy, and balanced and nutritious diets.
Already, increased frequency and intensity of drought is causing acute water shortages in some parts of South Africa, but the demand for resources such as water, energy and food which are vital for human well-being, poverty reduction and sustainable development is set to increase. Already vulnerable, the rural poor will be hardest hit. The Water Research Commission (WRC) has highlighted several times that resource scarcity has direct and indirect impacts on these communities, affecting their nutritional status, health, well-being, and livelihoods. Food insecurity, low crop yields, an upsurge of vector borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, and water and food-borne diseases (cholera and diarrhoea) are present realities they face due to new climate extremes.
Prioritising access to basic services and resources
For rural communities to strive and prosper during these changing and challenging times, access to basic services and resources should be prioritied as guaranteed human rights according to the Constitution of South Africa. When there is access to water, energy, and land (for food production and security), the possibilities are greater for any community. In order for rural communities to sustain their livelihoods into an uncertain future, new approaches to development are necessary. This cannot be achieved without government support for non-conventional approaches to rural development. Government assistance to poor rural communities is a key opportunity to introduce new technologies and novel thinking, both to increase the resilience of communities, and sustainably develop our country’s natural resources. To increase the nation’s capacity to face a resource-scarce future, sustainable and smart development is key.
Numerous reports have highlighted that rural livelihoods are dependent on the implementation of a holistic and systematic or nexus approach, as framed in the WRC lighthouse or flagship programme called Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus. The WEF Nexus approach provides a framework for sustaining rural resources, whilst maximising on positive synergies, and identifies how best to build resilience into rural livelihoods and wellbeing. For example, following the nexus approach, the trade-offs and detrimental impact on energy and water, due to investment in food security, are mitigated.
The WRC proposes the following five recommendations to improve resource management and livelihoods of the rural poor in South Africa to achieve sustainable development goals:
1. We need to exploit the untapped abundant renewable green energy sources, like wind and solar, to increase energy availability and access, reduce costs and provide clean energy for poor rural people. Solar and wind energy infrastructure can be installed at the demand area, further reducing the environmental footprint and the unintended trade-offs and/or consequences for other sectors such as water security or food production. Government departments such as Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development need to work together in order to drive the nexus thinking if we’re planning to stimulate rural development.
2. As a country we need to explore integrated and resilient water use – to counter rainfall variability and supplement surface water resources, we have to exploit untapped groundwater resources for irrigation and domestic use. This should be part of our accepted water mix, over and beyond a fall-back during drought.
3. Cultivated areas dependant on rainfall must be supplemented with groundwater – the majority of cultivated areas in South Africa are rainfed, placing it at great risk from rainfall variability. Local access to groundwater resources to supplement rainwater would enhance both household food security and household water security.
4. Increase access and availability of water, combined with clean energy would contribute significantly to uplifting the standard of living (nutrition, health, and well-being) among poor rural people, whilst countering the potential negative consequences of climate change. This is especially so for public health issues associated with malnutrition and water-borne diseases, as well as food preparation and heating with wood and paraffin.
5. Investment must be focused on research, development and innovation that enhance sustainability, promote higher production with fewer resources, waste reduction and minimising losses. This includes investments in efficient energy technologies to improve productivity in both urban and rural areas.
Many successful pilots that prove the effectiveness of the nexus approach for rural development have already been put into practice. Recently, the Operationalising Community-driven Multiple Use Water Services (MUS) in South Africa project brought water security to the Ga-Mokgotho, Tshakhuma, and Khalavha communities in Limpopo, using local expertise and energy at a fraction of the cost associated with conventional bulk infrastructure. The communities identified high yield wells in the mountains, contributed to the purchase of infrastructure to pipe water to their villages and households, developed storage capacity and connected it to a reticulation systems. The villagers had sufficient water to use for multiple use or purposes (such as crop and livestock production, drinking and household use and making bricks). More than 2,600 households benefited, assisting government to fill the backlog of the past in a cost-effective way.