We Must Act Now to Avoid the Fate of Cape Town, South Africa’s Water Crisis

You know that scene from the science fiction movies about the time humans beings ran out of vital resources to survive? The year is 2100 or so and Planet Earth is officially tapped out after an alien invasion, nuclear holocaust or climate change. There’s the sweating metropolis with its dusty streets and dilapidated buildings; the military patrols guarding water distribution points and barking orders over the PA; the long lines of despondent citizens carrying jerrycans waiting to be filled.

It’s a depressing scene largely unimaginable in real life – until now?

Enter Cape Town, South Africa, a city of four million people we once called home and to which we recently returned with our children on a working holiday. We did not know our visit would coincide with a water crisis the likes of which no major city has ever seen before. We shudder to think that crisis may be a harbinger of things to come back home and around the world.

Arriving at Cape Town International Airport, we were greeted by a plain white billboard exhorting all comers to “Please Save Water.” In large blue print, the government informed us of a “water crisis with severe restrictions in place” and thanked all visitors for “playing your part in protecting this precious commodity.” Simple enough, we thought.

Entering our accommodation, we received a second, more detailed exhortation to save water. A bulletin from the City of Cape Town titled “Drought crisis intervention: City to intensify pressure management” warned of supply interruptions as the city lowered water pressures to “stretch our water supplies [to] as many people as possible.”

The government instructed all residents to “keep an emergency water supply on hand for drinking and basic hygiene” and inveighed against irrigation, swimming pools, car washing and flushing toilets – except “when absolutely necessary and with gray water.” As for the earthy brown water already running from some taps, the bulletin informed us it was merely geosmin, a compound released “during the decomposition of algae in the Theewaterskloof Dam.”

As if the billboards and bulletins weren’t enough, the premiere of the Western Cape provincial government penned a lengthy appeal to the city’s four million inhabitants comparing the present crisis to World War II and urging the federal government to declare a State of Disaster in preparation for Day Zero. In the meantime, she said, Capetonians should resort to old fashioned brushes and wash basins instead of showers and baths to avert the worst.

If all that came as a shock to us, in a celebrated city with modern amenities we had come to take for granted over the years, we departed with the uncomfortable knowledge that things could get a whole lot worse: Cape Town is only months away from running dry.

Unless and until rains come or costly drilling and desalination projects are completed, residents will no longer have running water come July 9 – an improvement over prior estimates – and will be forced to line up for rations at collection points across the city. The provincial government freely concedes that when taps are turned off, “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” It has therefore called on the State Security Agency and the National Defense Force to help “distribute water, defend storage facilities, deal with potential outbreaks of disease, and keep the peace.”

Even if water distribution proceeds according to plan or “Day Zero” is averted, the economic threats are keenly felt on a region largely dependent on two water-intensive sectors: tourism and agriculture. Although the government commended both for reducing water consumption by upwards of 50 percent, only so much can be done to save crops and livestock and tourist bookings – and the hundreds of thousands of jobs they support – in the face of three consecutive years of record drought.

Which brings us to the threat behind the threat.

Although the causes of Cape Town’s crisis are multifarious and complex, the link to global climate change is unmistakable. According to the University of Cape Town’s Climate System Analysis Group, 2017 saw the lowest rainfall ever recorded in the region. Combined with the previous record the year before, the present drought has a one in 1,150 chance of occurring, making it the latest in a spate of “thousand-year” climatological events around the world.

In fact, in our brave new “science fiction” world, the old probabilities no longer apply. As climate scientists at NASA and around the world have been warning us for decades, our unfettered addiction to climate-changing fossil fuels has produced a rate global warming not seen in human history. Sixteen of the 17 hottest years ever recorded occurred since 2001, with 2017 coming in second behind a sweltering 2016. Droughts are but one of a multitude of deadly impacts – from hurricanes and floods to forest fires and famines – which now affect every corner of the globe.

Although Cape Town’s upper echelons will weather the present crisis in tact, aided by private boreholes and private security, the effects of prolonged droughts on more vulnerable populations in the region are grave. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, recent droughts in Southern as well as Eastern Africa have decimated crops and left tens of millions of people food insecure, including almost 580,000 children suffering severe acute malnutrition in Southern Africa alone. Globally, drought-induced desertification now threatens the livelihoods of nearly one billion people in some 100 countries, according to the UN.

And even as the whole country of South Africa prays for rain, the South African Weather Service is not making any predictions, saying previous forecasting models have proved useless in the era of climate change.

The good news is that just as humans being created this mess, we can fix it too – if we act now.

As individuals, we can harness breakthrough technologies for our homes and businesses like solar photovoltaics, LED lighting, solar-powered heat pumps and electric cars to live free of fossil fuels and save money in the process. By saying no to plastic bags at the grocery store, buying from (local) B Corporations and eating less meat, we can lower our carbon footprint even further.

At the governmental level, we can pressure our public servants to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and put a price on carbon that begins to account for the $44 trillion that climate change will cost us in the coming decades, according to Citigroup. With the tens of billions we’ll save each year from oil and gas subsidies in the United States alone, we can rapidly accelerate the clean energy transition.

These changes won’t come easy. Entrenched interests like the fossil fuel companies still enjoy undue influence in government by funding political campaigns, and we humans are often too busy or complacent to make the changes necessary in our daily lives. But as Capetonians are now demonstrating in their “fight against Day Zero,” change is possible and it often takes a crisis to concentrate the mind. Here’s hoping the rest of us will act against climate change before it’s too late.

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