If urgent steps are not taken, South Africa will run out of water for future economic growth within the next five years.
This is among several alarming expert opinions contained in the second edition of "The Environmental Handbook: A Guide to Green Business in South Africa", launched in Cape Town this week.
In a guest foreword to the publication, WWF SA chief executive Morne du Plessis warns that water availability is one of the "decisive factors" that will affect the country's economic development.
"At current consumption rates, our demand will outstrip supply by 2015," he says.
The handbook is published by consulting and research organisation Trialogue, which specialises in areas of sustainable business and corporate social investment.
The latest edition focuses on global warming, and was coincidentally released on a day when local newspapers were highlighting one of its more dramatic global effects: a 260 square kilometre slab of ice which has broken off the Greenland icecap.
The handbook notes the effects of climate change and increasing water stress are now being felt in South Africa.
"We're already at crux point with water, with only 2% of our supply in reserve - and, unlike the energy situation, there is no alternative to the resource we're using," it says.
Writing in the handbook, Water Neutral founder Pancho Ndebele - who, among other qualifications, holds an MSc in water and wastewater engineering - says water quantity and quality is becoming one of the major risks for local business and industry in the 21st century.
"Many of our water resources are being polluted by industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural run-off and litter.
Population growth and economic development
"At current population growth and economic development rates, it is unlikely that the projected demand on water resources in South Africa will be sustainable into the future."
Ndebele says it is imperative for companies to understand their "water footprints" and to take steps towards becoming "water neutral", similar to efforts being made by some firms to become carbon neutral.
79% of SA water stock trapped
In a separate contribution, the director of clean-tech company TouchStone, Professor Anthony Turton, says no other country in the world has trapped such a high proportion of its national water stock as South Africa.
"The total stock of water available to the SA economy is 48 billion cubic metres, of which 38 billion cubic metres has been trapped behind dams. This is a conversion rate of 79%, which is the highest in the world.
"It is known that beyond 60%, ecological collapse starts to occur. We are seeing that collapse... in the form of eutrophication, where most major dams are now manifesting toxic blooms of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria.
"Global climate change is likely to accelerate [this and other] phenomena, so we are in dire straits if we continue with business as usual."
Companies should conserve water
Turton calls on companies to start seeing themselves as custodians of water and energy, as opposed to being consumers, and to change their business models.
Trialogue managing editor Heather de Wet says the latest guide focuses on South Africa's emerging green economy and associated regulatory and operational shifts.
"Clearly, companies face serious challenges in both curtailing their environmental footprints and adapting to a fast-changing operating context. But how seriously is this... taken?
"Are companies engaging with the practicalities of greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation? Is the growing problem of water scarcity on the corporate radar? What are companies doing to reduce their environmental impacts?"
Companies realise the risks
"In an attempt to answer some of these questions, we conducted primary field research with 100 top corporates around the country.
"Our findings suggest many leading companies are beginning to recognise the gravity of environmental risks and challenges, but this growing consciousness has not yet translated into enough concrete action by the corporate sector as a whole," she says.
The handbook says the fact that 88% of South Africa's electricity is generated from goal is a severe restraint.
"South Africa is hamstrung in fast-tracking its economic development and environmental best practices by dirty energy."
One of the world's highest carbon emitters
The country is one of the world's highest carbon emitters. "In 2006, a report commissioned from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre for the United Nations... found that South Africa would need to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 49% to get in line with the global per capita consumption average."
It is also critical of government's efforts in this regard.
"At Copenhagen, South Africa committed to a 34% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, against a growth-without-constraints projection - and only if we are given aid to do so.
"To date, our response to climate change has been minimal."
The handbook notes that while the White Paper on Climate Change will be ready at the end of the year, and will likely lead to a Climate Act, "it remains to be seen how far government will go in imposing carbon taxes or restructuring our energy mix".
The publication also contains a wide selection of case studies, feature articles and expert opinions on the environmental challenges facing South African companies.
It examines corporate environmental practice, and tabulates the results of its field research, including corporate responses to climate change, energy usage, waste generation and water consumption, among others. - (Sapa, August 2010)