Poverty is a major factor in water scarcity and susceptibility to drought. This can be illustrated in a number of ways. Firstly, as was seen in the drought emergency of the early 1990s in South Africa, the price of water in rural areas for basic survival can become very high.
As traditional sources failed, people did not have the resources to provide alternatives (such as drilling new boreholes) and had to resort to buying water from vendors at extremely high costs. In periods of stress, those communities which have resources and access to credit, are able to survive.
In other words, a given situation of water shortage will have more extreme consequences for the poor than for the rich for one set of people it will spell disaster and for the other it will mean only inconvenience.
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It is for this reason that the macroeconomic policy of a country, and its effectiveness in addressing poverty, will have an important role in determining what constitutes conditions of water stress. Similar climatic conditions in two countries will cause famine in the poorer country and a temporary, limited economic depression in the wealthier country.
Legislation and Water Resource Management
Poor or inadequate legislation can exacerbate the effects of water scarcity. Water law which gives certain users exclusive rights to use of water is necessary to provide security for investment (usually in the agricultural sector), but it can result in other users being put in serious jeopardy during times of scarcity.
Whilst existing and future water law in South Africa will no doubt protect the rights of all people to basic minimum supplies of water, a legislative system which is not equitable will result in restrictions on the development of some sectors of society.
This is clearly illustrated in the effects of the riparian doctrine in the existing Water Act (1956). The management of water resources and the policies guiding the development of water resources can also have a direct effect on the ability of some sectors to survive periods of water scarcity.
If these are inequitable, inefficient, or do not provide for at least the basic needs of all citizens, then a particular occurrence of water scarcity will result in conditions of drought where, if the water resource management regime had been different, this would have been avoided.
The use of water in international rivers by upstream countries may lead to conditions of drought in downstream countries. South Africa has many international rivers and is in the position of being both an upstream and downstream riparian country. This is a problem which is obviously exacerbated during times of scarcity.
It is important that communication is maintained between riparian countries through a variety of mechanisms including special protocols, joint commissions, memoranda of agreement, treaties etc.
It is important that these are established during times of plenty rather than in times of crisis. The effect of proper and equitable sharing of international water resources is to assist in avoiding disaster conditions in neighboring states and to avoid the inevitable social, economic and political repercussions of these conditions within South Africa.