Unilever Symposium turns the tide on SA’s water management challenges
The scarcity and quality of water have emerged as trigger points around this precious life-giving liquid at a major symposium hosted by FMCG giant Unilever.
With a proactive outlook to addressing some of the country’s many water management challenges, Unilever brought together leading water experts to interrogate South Africa’s looming water crisis.
According to Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, water shortages are already affecting many parts of the world. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds in water-stressed conditions.
Water scarcity and water quality emerged as the focal points for discussion at the symposium attended by a host of delegates including Unilever representatives; academics with an interest in water issues; some of the country’s leading water players; corporate companies; water boards and members of the media.
“Water matters and you can participate in our water future. The Unilever water symposium offers a ground-breaking opportunity for a wide range of participants to engage with the water issues of our day.
“We are asking the question: if government has pledged to hold water in public trust for the benefit all people living South Africa – that is to provide Water for People – then how do each of us become People for Water – securing our water future?”
Industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural overflows and litter are all contributing factors to the country’s deteriorating water supply.
Moreover, factors such as climate change and unpredictable rainfall further exacerbate the water situation. It is reported that South Africa has an average annual rainfall of 450 mm, compared with a world average of 860 mm.
“South Africa faces a large number of water quality problems in rivers and water storage reservoirs. Most of these are the consequences of incomplete or inadequate treatment of wastewater effluents from cities and towns,” said Dr Peter Ashton, Principal Scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - Natural Resources and the Environment.
“Pollution that emanates from industries and mining activities complicates these issues, especially in the Vaal River system. This makes it difficult for local authorities to provide assured supplies of drinking water in both urban and rural areas.
“We have seen good improvements in the way that effluent is treated and water is purified in recent years, but many problems still linger on. There is a pressing need for national and local authorities to work together to solve these problems as soon as possible.”
Unilever has set a bold target to halve the water associated with the consumer use of its products by 2020 as part of the company’s Sustainable Living Plan.
“I am proud to be associated with a company that is taking an active stance to inculcate good water management practices both in the product manufacturing process and from a consumer education perspective,” said Justin Apsey, Vice President: Brand Building, Home Care at Unilever.
“We fully support Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa’s view that a collective effort from government, the business sector and civil society is required to ultimately ensure that every South African benefits from equal access to this basic human right.
“Meanwhile, if we are to achieve a water-efficient economy and a culture of sustainability together, we need to entrench a social ethic of water conservation in the minds of people each and every day. While South Africa’s environmental law is progressive, a more permanent solution is required to improve the current state of South Africa’s water supply.”
Water scarcity is a growing concern amidst a rising population and current economic development rates in water-stressed South Africa.
According to a South African National State of the Environment Report, at the projected population growth and economic development rates, it is unlikely that the projected demand on water resources in South Africa will be sustainable.
The Department of Water Affairs Deputy Regional Director for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and Catchment Strategies, Petrus Venter said: “The environmental footprint of humans have dramatically increased between 10 and 50 times over the past 100 years.
“To sustain modern civilisation, more that 50 million hectares of vegetation are annually disappearing with diversity plunging to become deserts. With less vegetation, local and regional rain patterns change and less water becomes available. More nutrients also wash to the river and dams as development, field fires and erosion increase.
“Vegetation and restoration of land and water courses re-introduce natural nutrient filters and increase diversity with more water available from increased precipitation.”
The three targets that are priorities for Unilever are: reduce water use in the laundry process; promote easy rinse products and products that use less water; and reduce water use in skin cleansing and hair washing.
Unilever’s Indonsa plant in Durban is the first green manufacturing plant in South Africa and was built with the three pillars of water neutrality, energy efficiency and zero waste to landfill in mind. Unilever applied the three R’s of “reduce, reuse and recycle” to their water consumption and implemented innovative technologies to minimise water use.
In 2002, global FMCG giant Unilever South Africa funded the establishment of the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality within the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
The objective of the Centre is to contribute to the understanding and sustainable management of water resources in Southern Africa. This is pursued through partnerships with industry, local and national government, water resource management forums, communities and other academic institutions.
By 2015 Unilever intends to reach 200 million consumers with products and tools that will help them to use less water while washing and showering. The company’s goal is to reach 400 million consumers by 2020. Although progress remains slow, Unilever is continually improving its understanding of this area.
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