The South African construction industry is known to be a major consumer of non-renewable resources. Naturally, this contributes to waste generation, air pollution, water deletion and landfill. One such example is the extensive infrastructure development in the Western Cape and the impact it is said to have on the City of Cape Town's water supplies. This crisis presents itself as an opportunity to limit water depletion in the construction sector with sustainable construction activities.

Several studies have been carried out on sustainable construction leading to a number of definitions of sustainability. Agenda 21 on Sustainable Construction for Developing Countries defines sustainable construction as “a holistic process aiming to restore and maintain harmony between the natural and built environments, and create settlements that affirm human dignity and encourage economic equity”. This requires a commitment to developing strategies that realise economic growth and protect the environment. Simply put, sustainable construction activities need to meet current consumption needs without compromising the ability of future generations to realise their own consumption needs (Brundtland Report, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development).

But how do we use sustainable construction activities to limit water depletion?

The starting point is determining factors hindering the adoption of sustainable construction practices in South Africa. Market research indicates that the challenges experienced include1:

  • Sustainable construction practices are a source of unforeseeable increase in project costs (mainly expenditure on extra machinery, equipment and training complying with set sustainability standards).
  • Incorrect projected costs in a project where environmental and social changes should be foreseeable.
  • Lack of up-to-date environmentally friendly resources to support gradual technological changes.
  • Lack of coordination of resources.

Stakeholders need to consider the long-term benefits that will accrue from sustainable construction and provide a clear business case for why it is necessary, and how project cost overruns will be curbed. Education and training on sustainable construction practices are also key. Providing knowledge and training to non-constituent shareholder groups and clients on the benefits of sustainable construction practices will increase their commitment and knowledge at every level. If that is attained, productivity will also be achieved through motivated stakeholders who are invested in sustainable construction practices.

In addition, implementing agents are encouraged to ensure that integrated planning and adequate communication take place and that projects are completed sequentially to balance the conservation of the natural resource in achieving project delivery. The active promotion of sustainable construction by the government can also speed up its realisation and encourage more contributions of viable strategies from all parties affected by the activities – especially in the face of a water crisis.

The water crisis in the Western Cape presents an opportunity for building designers and managers to find viable cost-efficient strategies to reduce water consumption by using more conserving fixtures, rain water recovery systems, and innovative water technologies. For example, we have seen the South African construction industry embarking on implementing the construction of “green buildings” which are designed to be energy and water efficient, use non-hazardous materials and provide healthy productive environments. This is an encouraging start and a concerted effort to ramp up sustainable construction activities will reap major benefits for South Africa.

The implementation of sustainable construction practices is feasible in South Africa. It is the commitment from stakeholders in the industry to provide strategic approaches to accomplishing these practices that are required. Such strategic approaches require integration of sustainable construction practices from design phase to completion, to ensure that the consumption of natural resources is sequentially balanced.