The looming water crisis: why is water still not a priority?

Water is a commodity in short supply. That is why it boggles that mind that the City of Cape Town would neglect to plan for a water crisis, writes NOMVULA MOKONYANE

Water is probably the most important natural resource for mankind. This is not because it is required for almost all life sustenance, for all living organisms and for the survival of mother nature itself – something that already makes it head and shoulders above all other resources – but mainly because of how limited a resource it is.

According to an article by Author Khadija Muhammad, “Despite the fact that a large portion of the Earth is covered by water, only 2.5% of that is deemed fresh and suitable for direct human use. But not all of this is available, as much of it is confined to snowfields and glaciers, meaning that only a meagre 1% is present in convenient locations. Though certain countries are blessed with extensive drainage features and are ensured a certain amount of rainfall or melting of snow every year, which replenishes them, water is still a huge problem for most countries”, writes Muhammad.

This is effectively a departure point for all countries and for all regions within countries. We are already operating at less than 1% of the world’s water, it makes sense for each country at all times to ask how much of that 1% it has access to and how far off it is from the rest of the 2.5%.

Tim Smedley, writing for the BBC, poses the one question that many people always ask. “Given that 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, and that volume remains constant (at 1,386,000,000 cubic kilometres), how is a water shortage even possible?”

Well, 97.5% is seawater unfit for human consumption. And both populations and temperatures are ever-rising, meaning that the freshwater we do have is under severe pressure, Smedley says’.

Water demand globally is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. Much of the demand is driven by agriculture, which accounts for 70% of global freshwater use, and food production will need to grow by 69% by 2035 to feed the growing population. Water withdrawal for energy, used for cooling power stations, is also expected to increase by over 20%. In other words, the near future presents one big freshwater drain after the next. (Smedley 2017)

Smedley punches holes to this mischief by some to play a psychological game with households and make them feel they are responsible for water shortages whilst 70% of global freshwater is used by Agriculture. After Agriculture, it is industry that consumes much of our water. Any response that seeks to deal with water management use has to speak to these weights of water usage and not pit people against each other, blaming urbanisation or people movements as a major contributor to water shortages.

Although South Africa is not in the top 10 of the most water-stressed countries who may face a water crisis in the next 20 years, we are still at higher risk of facing a crisis in the mid-term if they don’t plan for the future adequately. Along with us are Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Namibia, Botswana, Peru, Chile, and several North African countries. These countries are at high risk for severe water scarcity by 2040. (Esha Day 2015)

There are many reasons that attribute to this growing water crisis in these countries. Climate change has affected water supplies within the region. Rains that usually come and supply the country’s water have come infrequently. Then there are droughts that are more frequent than they used to be in the past. Population growth which concentrates people in the urban spaces creates a contest for water in some parts of the country and frees others that are less concentrated, making the problem of water a little more concentrated in more urban areas.

Despite all of these factors, however, there is no denying that cities and countries themselves must take responsibility for not prioritising water and putting long-term and concrete plans for the future which will accommodate all the natural realities and human development along with urbanisation.

The National Department of Water & Sanitation is aware, via several reports, that already in 2008 about 5 million people lacked access to water and 15 million lacked access to basic sanitation. Overhauling infrastructure is challenging and costly, but the government is committed to meeting these challenges, but we cannot do it on our own. Issues of maintaining old pipes and preventing leaks were also not helping to alleviate our water crisis affecting millions. The fact that we already had a backlog in services since the end of apartheid meant our efforts needed to be doubled. Cape Town is on another level of crisis and because water does not just disappear in a year or over a few years. The failure has to be put squarely on a lack of planning. Cape Town faces a severe water crisis such that in June our reservoirs sank to 10.5% of their capacity.

Some city politicians have blamed everything, from climate change to the city’s rapid population growth to droughts, as contributors to the stress on the water system but these reasons are not unique to Cape Town, so how the city finds itself in the current crisis is really puzzling. The first question one asks is, at what point in Dam level capacity should we ring the alarm? When it’s 70% or when it’s 20%? Given that water is generally not in huge supply in the world, why would the city and province not have a 50-year plan or 100-year plan on most critical resources to ensure the long-term survival of the province?

It is not just political parties who are putting the blame squarely at the feet of the city and provincial government. Many critics say the provincial government should have done more to forestall the crisis by acting sooner to upgrade infrastructure and cut water usage. There can be no question about this.

As late as it is, the only enemy now is not prioritising the new measures of dealing with water. We must stop waking up only when we hit the rock bottom of our dams again.

Government has committed to implementing long-term solutions to increase supply before the situation reaches a critical and deadly level, but again like all challenges, we face as a society where we require partnership with organised business, NGOs in the sector, and above all, the communities we serve.

Mokonyane is Minister of Water & Sanitation

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