Monday, February 19, 2018

Cape Town’s water crisis: we are not alone

Photo Shafiq Morton
THIS piece is not about the blame game, triggered by the ‘worst drought in living memory’. Nor is it about the arrogance and the rank incompetence of our city authorities, who only woke up when they realised that they would be the first administration in the world to run out of water.
No, this is not about the DA and its cloying attempts to shift the blame, and nor is it about the ANC, intent on scoring points against the DA. Locked into five-year election cycles that have ignored long term planning, our political parties have simply dropped the ball.
The point is; water affects every South African citizen. We are a water-stressed country, and water has to transcend party differences.
Today’s status quo – the city of Cape Town unilaterally installing water restriction devices that have never passed SABS or NRCS muster – is the equivalent of a chain store blaming its customers for its poor service, and then forcing them to purchase inferior goods as a result. It is no wonder that the public is angry. 
Bureaucratically, Big Brother now fully controls our water, and we are now captive to the big business of water reticulation. Then there is the fact that plans to heighten dam walls, clean alien vegetation and maintain channels in the catchment areas were either never done, or simply neglected.
The great shame, the why of the water crisis, is that government and council have ignored a host of water experts – sometimes even their own – for decades. In fact, the first caution about water in the Western Cape was issued in 1970. The second warning, the result of research in 1990, said that we could run dry by 2007.
In 2005, a local company, Grahamtec, offered to install a R2 million desalination plant at the V & A Waterfront at its own expense to showcase the cost effectiveness of desalination. The city turned it down.
Since then, South African manufacturers have struggled to get local tenders, despite the fact that their plants have been installed internationally in places such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and successfully helped to wean Singapore off the Malaysian grid.
Then there has been the whiff of corruption: suspensions at the state owned Umgeni Water. Our own desalination plants re-labelled overseas and offered back to us at four times the price. Israeli desalination technology, copied from South Africa, being considered the cure all – from so-called water experts, who have exhausted the West Bank aquifer, pirated Syrian water from the occupied Golan Heights, nearly drained  the Dead Sea – and who have covered the land with alien, water guzzling pines. 
But back to the why of the water crisis. In 2007, water researchers issued another warning; this time saying that if current demand continued, Cape Town would run dry by 2012-15. Michael Muller of the SA Water Institute reported that the council was ‘arrogant and over confident’, saying that our water would last until 2022.
To its credit, the city did institute some measures of saving. But as we all know, that was not enough to get through our latest drought cycle – which began in 2015, largely due to the El Nino phenomenon, a change in the surface temperature of the Pacific.
The earth’s ocean currents and weather systems are all inter-linked, and El Nino – or its effeminate twin La Nina – shifts the trajectory of frontal systems, causing droughts in some regions and flooding in others.
For countries such as Australia, Brazil, India, Spain, South Africa and the US, the complex El Nino/La Nina effect has meant drought. For other regions of Asia and the Caribbean, it has meant torrential rainfall and high-strength cyclones.
The harsh reality is that parts of Asia, the Americas, Australia and Africa are all severely water-stressed. In Brazil, over 800 metropolitan areas have become water-stressed; Perth and Melbourne in Australia face similar challenges, and Barcelona – not unlike Cape Town – went to the brink.
This is all happening on a planet – which is covered 70% by water – but where only three per cent is potable, and of that, another 50% is locked up in glaciers.
As a surfer who has monitored the weather keenly for five decades, and who as a radio presenter has done a daily weather report for 20 years, I can safely say that our climate is slowly changing over the long term.
Whilst our cycles of dry and wet years have more or less remained consistent within the limited bands of predictability, there have been shifts. For example, kelp – a cold-water organism – has encroached further into False Bay due to fewer westerly winds, which warm the sea after the cold upwelling of the southeaster.
Our weather systems – admixed with the side effects of global warming – often result in more extreme frontal incidences, such as the Peninsula’s near-cyclone of June last year and the hurricanes of the Gulf.
However, at the end of the day, water crises are rarely a matter of rainfall, but more a case of bad human management. In this, we are certainly not alone. For us to survive, there is a need for a more a more holistic understanding, and environmentally sensitive approach, to water catchment. People should not be punished, as in Cape Town, for going off the grid.
However, whatever happens, our precious water resources must not fall into the hands of greedy privateers, which occurred in California. It is the duty of the state to provide water for us all – without discriminating against the poor, for whom the bucket queues of Day Zero are already a daily occurrence.

An edited version was first published in Muslim Views.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great info! I am looking to travel to Cape Town. I was initially scared because of the cape town water crisis , but since that is not a problem anymore I feel it is time to go!