Let's Think

Water scarcity Cape Town a global wake-up call?

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While Cape Town is seriously at risk to become the first major city in modern history to run out of drinking water, it is by far not the only one in the world.

In fact, the scarcity of drinking water is a global problem that has been intensifying now for some time, and world-wide governments at all levels are found wanting in their response.

At least 125 of the world’s 500 largest cities are in an situation of “water stress” an international survey, done in 2014, found.  And, over one billion people across the globe lack access to water with another 2.7 billion finding it scarce for at least one month of the year, every year, the BBC reported last week.

In September 2014 The Intelligence Bulletin reported that the spectre of water wars is becoming a reality. “Evidence is mounting that the world’s dwindling water resources are fast becoming a danger to global peace. Experts only differ on whether most conflicts will be between countries or on internal sub-national level.

“The latest National Intelligence Strategy, released by the United States’ director of National Intelligence, James R Clapper, states that more than half of the world's wetlands have disappeared, and climate change has altered weather patterns around the world and led to water shortages. Scarcity now poses a global security threat that U.S. intelligence agencies take as seriously as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure,” we reported at the time.

In its estimate more than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes, unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water aquifers.

Early warnings went unheeded

 Three years before the so-called “day zero” for drinking water in Cape Town is on the verge of becoming a reality, in February 2015 and short on the heels of electricity outages, we reported: “South Africa’s electricity crisis has a ‘terrible twin’, thus far lurking mostly in the background, which might soon steal the limelight with devastating effect.

“Until now periodic load-shedding by electricity utility Eskom has dominated the news. But increasingly there are reports that tell the story of a water reticulation infrastructure dangerously under stress.

“A repeat of the Eskom crisis on the water distribution front could be much more devastating on more fronts. For one, it could place the already fragile social stability in the country under severe pressure.”

Already then it was warned that of South Africa’s water fit for human consumption 37% is being lost through inefficient usage such as dripping taps and leaking pipes.

To this can be added that just about all of South Africa’s available freshwater stocks from rivers, man-made dams, and groundwater sources had already been fully allocated by 2005.

In November 2015 we carried an article by Professor Mike Muller of the Witwatersrand, done for The Conversation website in which warned that because of tardy implementation of forward  planning, when it is done, Gauteng could, starting in 2018 could be entering a six year period during which water supply become unreliable. This is because the Polihali Dam, identified as Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which should have been in place this year, at best, will now only start delivering water by 2024.

Not just South Africa

However, as South Africans we should not, as is so often our way, only beat up ourselves.

The BBC report mentioned above, a list of eleven world cities, with serious drinking water shortages, are supplied to illustrate that what is presently happening in Cape Town is “just the tip of the iceberg” of what is happening globally.

And, it is not just cities in developing countries that make the list. Britain’s capital, London is in the 9th sport with, according to the Greater London Authority, the city pushing close to capacity (of water supply) and likely to have supply problems by 2025 and "serious shortages" by 2040.

 The Japanese capital, Tokyo, is in the 10th spot. Home to 30m people, its water system is for 70% dependent on surface water during its annual 8 months without rain, and its storage, and pipeline infrastructure under stress. 

While the US state of Florida is among the five US states most hit by rain every year. However, there is a crisis brewing in its most famous city, Miami, putting it at number 11 on the list. In a project similar to what happened elsewhere in the world, including some South African urban areas, an early 20th Century project to drain nearby swamps had an unforeseen result; water from the Atlantic Ocean contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer, the city's main source of fresh water.

Although the problem was detected in the 1930s, seawater still leaks in, especially because the American city has, on the back of climate change, experienced faster rates of sea level rise, with water breaching underground defence barriers installed in recent decades.

Neighbouring cities are already struggling. Hallandale Beach, which is just a few miles north of Miami, had to close six of its eight wells due to saltwater intrusion.

The solution

Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface, however only 3% of it is fresh water. While day zero can be pushed out by measures like better up-keep of water reticulation infrastructure to cut down on wastage, multipurpose recirculation of used (grey water), and increased storage capacity, the face of climate change and population growth it is not a final, and, total solution.

As our Let’s Think of last week indicated, despite some 3,2 kilometres of aqueducts in the Nygana district in pre-historic Zimbabwe, it was probably climate change and drought that forced that community to migrate, leaving behind the Zimbabwe ruins. That solution to escape does not exit in our modern world.

We do not believe that, even if total cooperation on issues like carbon emission can do more than delay climate change – buy us some time. Climate change is just not in the hands of mankind.

However, we can adapt and there are modern technologies that enable us to not only purify used water for re-use, but to also harvest the water of the sea for human consumption. This technology just might be the modern equivalent of Noah’s Ark.

Some eight years ago I was involved in attempts to persuade government structures to invest in desalination and purification technology that was becoming available. We had no luck.

Hopefully what is happening in Cape Town will serve as a final wake-up call not only for domestic leaders, but globally warning signals will be heeded.

by Piet Coetzer

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