Cape Town water crisis—sign of things to come

Cape Town—in which some of Africa’s most affluent live– is rapidly running out of water, writes Alan Thornett. Population growth and a record drought, exacerbated by climate change, are creating one of the world’s most dramatic urban water crises. The government has warned that by mid-April the city could face ‘day zero’ when the authorities will be forced to shut off taps to homes and businesses because reservoirs will be empty and (they say) anarchy could break out.

The city has grown by almost 80 per cent since 1995. Anthony Turton, of the South African resource-management centre, says that the city is at the 11th hour, ‘There is no more time for solutions’ he said . We need divine intervention.’

And according to the South African Weather Service, 2015 was the driest year on record. The decline in dam levels started in mid-2014. While there is seasonal variation, there is also a downward trend, with each peak and trough a bit lower than the last. The catchment has not been considered ‘normal’ since mid-2015

And as reliefweb points out: ‘wastewater treatment in South Africa is in an appalling condition. The 2014 Green Drop Report concluded that nearly a quarter of the country’s wastewater treatment facilities were in a ‘critical state’, with another quarter listed as ‘high risk’. The DWS no longer publishes this report (a problem in itself), but local NGO AfriForum has attempted a similar enterprise. They found that two-thirds of tested facilities didn’t meet national water quality standards, an increase of more than 100% from 2016 levels.’ This combined with the large amount of water wasted through leakages.

And Cape Town is far from a unique situation. Sao Paulo faced a similar situation two years ago. The reality is that planet faces an acute and growing crisis of fresh water. The demand has grown at more than twice the rate of the population during the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas facing acute water scarcity, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed regions.

Urbanisation is a particular problem. At the start of the 19th century just 10 per cent of the world’s population was urban. A century later the figure was between 20 and 25 per cent. In 1990, 40 per cent of the world’s population were city dwellers and only two decades later it had reached half. Today the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 some 60 per cent of the world population will be urban and 70 per cent by 2050. Half of all urban dwellers live in cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 and 10 per cent live in megacities of more than 10 million.

Fresh water scarcity is increasingly becoming a cause of international conflicts. The glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate and the rivers are drying up. Ground water aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate. Over 25 per cent of all river water is now extracted before it reaches the ocean. Many rivers dry up before they get there. One in six people on the planet get their drinking water from glaciers and snowpack, on the world’s mountain ranges, which are all receding.

Wars and conflict over energy resources are built into the DNA of climate change. As rivers dry up, conflicts over water become more bitter. Twenty countries, globally, get more than half of their water from their neighbours. The Israeli water-grab of the flow of the river Jordan has longs been a central factor in its oppression of the Palestinians. Water has also been a central factor in the dispute between India and Pakistan. The Indus Water Treaty, which was brokered between the two countries in 1960, bound them to share the flow of the river, with each taking a share of water from three Indus tributaries – with the flow of the Chenab (which flows through Kashmir) being given to Pakistan. This has since become the main source of water for the Punjab, which is the bread basket of Pakistan. This flow is now threatened by the Baglihar barrage which is being erected in Indian Kashmir just short of where the river passes into Pakistan and is now the subject of a bitter dispute between India and Pakistan, exacerbating other tensions between the two over Kashmir.

Today, Cape Town is prepping 200 emergency water stations. Each will have to serve around 20,000 residents. Officials are making plans to store emergency water supplies at military installations. Using tap water to fill swimming pools, water gardens, or wash cars is already illegal. Authorities have stepped up water-theft patrols at natural springs where fights have broken out.

Earlier in January, the city requested residents to restrict their consumption to just 50 litres per day—less than one-sixth of what the average America uses. If consumption doesn’t drop quickly, and up to now it hasn’t, it will have to be cut to around 25 litres a day.

If Cape Town runs out of water, it will quickly become a national, not a provincial, emergency. There would be massive outward migration, which will drive up water use in other parts of the country and increase the dangers of overexploitation. People will suffer from dehydration with all the health implications that has.

There is a huge class divide involved in this. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, more than a decade after the end of apartheid. The most reluctant to curb their usage are those living in affluent areas who are able and prepared to just pay higher charges.

But around a quarter of Cape Town’s population live in shanty towns where there is no piped water to individual shacks and people have to get water from communal taps that are unreliable anyway. As a result, 1 million people out of a population of 4 million use just 4.5 percent of the water. It is not the black residents of these shanty towns that are bringing the crisis closer.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent article. The rich in Cape Town are rich by international standards; if necessary they could pay for water to be imported from abroad in converted oil tankers., but the situation in the townships will be desperate. Alan uses the official widespread figure of one million in the townships, but local activists put the real figure closer to two million. The situation for them will be absolutely desperate. The lack of running water in the townships and the waste water infrastructure crisis is another indictment of the way the ANC has failed the working class and the poor.

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