Cape Town: A warning to a thirsty world

Water scarcity is here to stay and it could be one of the biggest sources of international conflict and social unrest of the century
Cape Town: A warning to a thirsty world
A plant grows between cracked mud in a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam which supplies most of Cape Town's potable water - Photo: Mike Hutchings/REUTERS
16/03/2018
15:01
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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The disaster may have been deferred for several months in Cape Town, South Africa, yet its current plight must be fully understood by the rest of the world: water scarcity is here to stay and it could be one of the biggest sources of international conflict and social unrest of this century.

As a result of the great efforts made by Cape Town’s local authorities in the last months, including life-altering restrictions such as the establishment of a daily allowance of only 50 liters per person, prohibiting the use of taps to wash cars or water gardens, and the deployment of a special police force who patrols wealthy suburbs and informal settlements in search of excessive usage, April 12 or Day Zero, when the city of 4 million inhabitants would run dry, has been avoided and it  is now projected for July 9, late August or even 2019.

Nevertheless, Cape Town’s immediate future remains dependent on the southern hemisphere winter rains.

The City of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality, headed by Patricia de Lille, is planning to shut off taps in homes and business when its six major dams—now at 26% of capacity—hit the 13.5% mark, and it is prepping 200 emergency water stations in gathering points, each expected to serve 20,000 people.

New water wells are being drilled and four new desalination plants are under construction with the financial support of the Western Cape provincial government. “Provided we continue consuming water at current levels, and we receive decent winter rainfall this year, Day Zero will not occur in 2018”, said South African opposition leader Mmusi Maimane, whose Democratic Alliance runs Cape Town.

The last three years of drought have taken its toll on economy. Rating agency Moody’s warned this week the crisis would cause the city’s borrowing to rise sharply and the provincial economy to shrink the longer the situation lasted, Reuters reported.

The agricultural output would be cut by 20% this year, reducing fruit exports to Europe and one of the most direct impacts would be on Cape Town’s operating revenues, as 10% of them are from water charges.

Capital expenditure related to water and sanitation infrastructure could be as much as R$12.7 billion (USD$1,076 billion) over the next five years.

The drought also threatens to slow South Africa’s economic rebound, which has been fuelled by a surge in agricultural production. Cape Town, ironically known as Cape of Storms in colonial times, generated nearly 10% of the country’s total GDP in 2016.

Years of negligence

The city and national governments have been heavily criticized for their handling of the crisis. A 1990 Water Research Commission study warned that Cape Town, the second-most populous urban area in South Africa after Johannesburg and the legislative capital of the country as well, would run out of water in 17 years.

The supply of fresh water still comes from the six reservoirs that rely on rainfall, while the plans to tap the groundwater under the province were delayed several times.

Mismanagement, climate change, rapid urbanization, and inequality—Cape Town is one of the most violent cities in the world and the unemployment rate is at 25%—are the main reasons behind the crisis.

The picture is similar in 125 of the 500 largest cities currently facing a situation of “water stress.” According to UN Water, the United Nations body coordinating work on water and sanitation, global demand for fresh water—only 3% of the Earth’s total—will exceed supply by 40% in 2030, due to climate change, human action, and population growth.

Mexico City, Mexico; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Beijing, China; Cairo, Egypt; Jakarta, Indonesia; Tehran, Iran, and Tokyo, Japan, are among the vast metropolitan areas living in “water stress.”

Water scarcity affects not only social stability, it can even lead to international disputes as the ones between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam—a hydropower project that will be the largest in Africa and a linchpin of Ethiopia’s plans for development— or in the diversion of the waters of the Jordan River to the Negev desert in Israel.

In a 2012 report, the United States Director of National Intelligence focused on critical water basinsthe Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Mekong, Jordan, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya—and concluded that many countries using its waters will experience shortages, poor water quality, and floods that will risk “instability, state failure, and increase regional tensions.”

Scientists and experts, however, are optimistic about the solutions at hand with the deployment of new technologies; for instance, these and other issues will be addressed by the industry at the Global Water Summit to convene in Paris on April 15 to 17.
 
Under the motto “Transcending boundaries,” the sector will discuss the use of biotechnology in water management in the oil and gas industry, reuse of wastewaters, public-private partnerships, and infrastructure projects.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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