South Africa: Cape Town a sign of things to come

Cape Town residents line up to collect water from a natural spring.

Cape Town — in which some of Africa’s most affluent live — is rapidly running out of water. 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% since 1995. Anthony Turton, of the South African resource-management centre, said the city is at the 11th hour. “There is no more time for solutions,” he said. “We need divine intervention.”

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.

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.”

A large amount of water is also wasted through leakages.

Cape Town is far from a unique situation. Sao Paulo in Brazil faced a similar situation two years ago.

The 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, and 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% of the world’s population was urban. A century later the figure was 20-25%. In 1990, 40% of the world’s population were city dwellers and only two decades later it had reached half.

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 about 60% of the world population will be urban and 70% by 2050. Half of all urban dwellers live in cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 and 10% 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.

More than 25% 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 get more than half of their water from their neighbours.

The Israeli water-grab of the flow of the river Jordan has long 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, brokered between the two countries in 1960, bound them to share the flow of the river. It allows each to take a share of water from three Indus tributaries.

The flow of the Chenab (which flows through Kashmir) was 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 that is being erected in Indian Kashmir just short of where the river passes into Pakistan. It is now the subject of a bitter dispute between India and Pakistan, worsening other tensions between the two over Kashmir.

Today, Cape Town is prepping 200 emergency water stations. Each will have to serve about 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 a day — less than one-sixth of what the average American uses. If consumption does not drop quickly, and up to now it has not, it will have to be cut to about 25 litres a day.

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

There is a huge class divide involved. 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 about 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% of the water. It is not the Black residents of these shanty towns that are bringing the crisis closer.

[Reprinted from Socialist Resistance.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Reading Green Left online is free but producing it isn't ...

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls, but we depend on your support to survive.