Friday, May 24, 2024

We should consider opening the water sector up to private sector participation

Until quite recently there was a general belief, including among the media that the problem of what shortage in Botswana was confined to the southern parts of the country, especially in Gaborone where for the last few years, rain seasons have come and gone and still the Gaborone Dam remained unfilled.

In the north, almost all the dams were full to capacity, with levels always in the upper sides of 90%.

But this year the situation has been totally different.

While it has gotten worse in Gaborone, dams in the north have also experienced dipping levels.

For the first time in a very long time we are coming out of the rain season, for example with Shashe Dam still in the 70s when it comes to water level.

And it is not only Shashe Dam, but quite a few other dams in the north as well.

We are of the view that these dipping levels should be interpreted as the red lights that are beginning to flash, warning us that even what we thought was our refuse cannot be relied on, at least in the long run.

What is happening at Shashe Dam and others in the north is exactly how the situation in Gaborone started. At the time we did not take it seriously because we believed, quite wrongly that the rains would with time come back and replenish the dam.

That has not happened for many years and the Gaborone Dam is as we speak dry and unable to support economic activity even at the bare minimum levels without resort to water rationing or being supplemented by other sources.

It is important to take notice of what is happening in the north and start planning as early as now for the time when the dams in north would God forbid, also follow in the footsteps of Gaborone Dam.

The best way to prepare for that eventuality is to start planning and preparing. For many decades now there has been talk of ferrying water from the Zambezi River in the north of the country for use in far down south places like Gaborone. That idea while feasible is intricately difficult, not only because of the large sums of money involved but also the politics involved.

Botswana does not own exclusive rights to the Zambezi. Any attempt to divert the water from the Zambezi will entail a lot of diplomatic shuffling between no less than five countries. This will be difficult but also time consuming.

And as it is, time is not on our side as a country. Even then, political diplomacy is only half the story. Costs are so high that they will naturally be prohibitive.

They will also rise with time.

At the moment, conservative estimates put the cost of drawing the Zambezi waters into the country’s infrastructure network at around P30 billion.

Conservative as it is, it is still very scary indeed.

More shocking is the fact that the costs may yet go up.

Under the current set up, such an amount of money is just too far out of reach for our government.
This leaves us with the option of the private sector.

Up to now the private sector has not played any role in the water sector in Botswana.

But the problems that we face as a country require a paradigm shift.

Faced with such drastic ailments we have no choice but to respond with drastic solutions.
There should be no illusion that private sector will be a panacea.

To the contrary, private sector participation will come with its own difficulties.

The first is that they can only start investing in a P30 billion project if there is a guarantee that not only will they recoup their money, but also that they will make profits. For that to happen it would mean doing away with the current water subsidies.

This may prove a dicey political undertaking. But the politicians may start planning around it as early as now.
Otherwise we are headed for a point of no return.


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