There is a lot of hand wringing going on in the South African press these days. Not only has the country experienced stress on its electrical power supply grid severe enough to result in rolling blackouts and curtailed power to major industries like mining that supply massive quantities of jobs and contributions to the Gross Domestic Product, but now it looks like actions to solve that issue are going to result in the consumption of more water than previously expected. (See, for example New power projects under threat)
The country happens to be reasonably well blessed with excellent water sources and major rivers, but those, like the coal that supplies more than 85% of the country’s current electrical power supply, are often located quite a distance from the population centers.
That means that the country needs to invest in systems that move the water from source to consumer. Due to the nature of water transport, it is not something that can be planned and built overnight – pipelines require years of investment before they move the first gallon of water.
The common thread between the two supply challenges of water and electricity is the fact that both require long term thinking, investment horizons that stretch into the decades rather than the next quarterly report, and solid engineering. It happens that South Africa happens to be blessed with some people who are skilled in those areas, but they were marginalized in recent years by government bureaucrats and by people who have realized that almost any damn fool can stop a project while it takes a huge, sustained effort by many people to move major projects to successful completion.
I think that South Africa is just playing the role of the canary in the coal mine for fast growing economies. If you put too many restraints on the people that actually like to look ahead, plan for the future, and make reasonable investments in major projects like roads, bridges, power systems, water systems, and railroads, you will run in to uncomfortable constraints on your ability to take advantage of the opportunities associated with a growing and vibrant economy.
I fear that my own country is going to face even more of the same challenges itself as our infrastructure fails to keep up with demand largely because of many years worth of short term thinking driven by a score keeping system that only rewards immediate satisfaction.