The South African drought teaches us that business as usual is too little, too late

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By Kirsten de Vette*

South Africa has been suffering through one of the most severe droughts in living memory. In Cape Town, it is the worst drought the city has experienced in over 100 years, with rainfall over the last two years at its lowest recorded levels. The dams that supply the city’s population of 3.75 million people recently dropped below 30 percent, sparking a stark warning that there is a risk that taps will stop flowing before start of rainy season.

The Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, recently warned that the city only had one hundred days of water supply left, but took a positive message from the situation. “Crisis’s produce opportunities, it could be a massive drive for education,” she said in a recent interview. She referred to educating people not only that water is scarce now, but will remain so in the future. Addressing this will require people to change their behaviours. She highlighted that “you can only save water while you still have water”, and that they had started to tap into rivers running beneath the city, as well as investigating pumping purified wastewater into their dams.

Developing and implementing these types of solutions, as well as finding innovative ways to resource them financially through mechanisms like climate bonds, requires a long-term vision. A significant element of which, is a vision and strategy for providing the human resources required to make it work. The water sector needs a workforce that is fit for purpose. This means the size of the water sector workforce must grow to meet growing demands, but also that it is innovative, adaptive, multi-disciplinary and able to cooperate and work across sectors to find solutions.

Like most countries worldwide, South Africa faces the significant dual challenge of a water workforce that is ageing, and inadequate recruitment and training of younger professionals. This creates the risk of failing to inspire future talent into the sector and leaving significant human resource gaps.

How can we motivate young professionals to join the water sector, and how do we stimulate their professional development so they stick around?

Younger generations, according to generation Y and Z theories, are very passionate about doing jobs that empower them to contribute to a cause that aligns with their world view.

If we examine what empowerment means to young water professionals, to engage and retain them in the sector requires:

  • Ensuring professional opportunities, such as affordable and accessible platforms to engage in the sector and build their networks;
  • Connecting the motivations of young professionals with the mission of the sector, such as contributing to a sustainable water future;
  • On-going skill development, as part of career development, that deepens and broadens their skills and knowledge;
  • Giving younger professionals authority, ensuring they have a voice in the larger agenda of the organisations they work for, and the broader water sector
  • Offer financial and non-financial rewards, including recognising their efforts through profiling and awards.

Three years ago, the International Water Association (IWA) undertook research into water sector capacity gaps in 15 low-income countries. One of the clear messages of the research was that the sector needs to do much more to encourage young professionals to join it, in particular women, and to focus much harder on retaining them.

The IWA plays an important role in developing the capacity of young water professionals (YWPs) by providing opportunities for them to contribute their knowledge in the international water arena. This enables YWPs to develop professional and personal networks, and to access professional development and learning opportunities to which they might otherwise not have access.

The IWA’s vision of a world in which water is sustainably managed, links directly with the drivers that motivate younger professionals to embark upon a career in the sector. The IWA International Young Water Professionals Conference is one of the key ways in which the IWA operationalises this vision. The leading global event for young water leaders from around the world, it provides a platform to debate the challenges and solutions facing the sector and the role of young professionals, while also offering learning, professional development, and networking opportunities for young professionals.

*Kirsten de Vette is Learning and Capacity Development Officer responsible for mainstreaming of learning and professional updating throughout IWA’s member activities, the IWA Young Water Professional activities, and leading on IWA’s work on assessment, planning and development of human resource capacities in the water sector.