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The Future is Here: The Lesson of Cape Town

In 2015, Cape Town South Africa won the C-40 Cities (a “network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change’) award for “Adaptation Implementation” because of its  Water Conservation and Demand Management (WCWDM) Program. Cape Town was a model for water conservation, but in April of this year, Cape Town will run out of water. Three factors seem to have been at work in Cape Town: 1) a three-year drought, 2) a rapid, sustained population increase, and 3) an emphasis upon water conservation while failing to find new sources of water. When the taps are shut off in April, people in Cape Town, a city of  3.75  million people, will have to stand in line to obtain containers of water from limited and restricted supply depots. No one knows how orderly this process will be. Extreme economic inequality, which exists in Cape Town and its surrounding region, will produce extreme water access inequality, with rich neighborhoods already drilling  and accessing additional wells and hording water in families’ personal water tanks (some families with multiple giant tanks on their property).

Most scientists agree that Cape Town’s water crisis is a consequence of climate change, combined with unusual weather conditions and soaring population pressures. Such conditions are not unique to South Africa and in the U.S., California has experienced similar drought conditions in recent years. Africa, where droughts are common and where climate change effects are likely to be accentuated by normal extreme weather conditions and underdeveloped infrastructure amidst metropolitan population surges, is the bellweather region of the world for crises related to our warming planet and increasing population. Even with the world population growth rate decreasing since it peaked in the 1970’s, the raw number of people living in the world continues to rise, and more so in some of the most vulnerable areas of the world.

Climate change, extreme weather events, population growth and regional disparities in vulnerability, resources, and infrastructure are all contributing to a precarious situation. As in Cape Town, most of the solutions for meeting water supply needs in California, one of the most vulnerable areas to water depletion in the U.S., have been on the side of manipulating water usage, rather than searching for new sources of water. A 2014 report by The Pacific Institute suggested that water needs in California over the next several years can be met by increased efficiency of use, reuse and recycling of water, and increased capture of local rainwater, particularly storm runoff. The same Pacific Institute is studying efforts at constructing and running desalination plants, but is cautious about them because of costs, emissions, and harm to marine life. Desalination efforts in California have actually decreased since early in this century, with 21 projects scheduled in 2006, lowered to 19 in 2012, and reduced to only 9 by 2016. Only two plants have actually been built since 2006 making a total of six such existing plants, mostly along the central and southern coast.

Cape Town should provide a wake-up call to the rest of the world and particularly, here in the U.S., to California. Efforts to find new water resources are vital and, because most of them are costly and time-consuming to construct, can’t be put off until, like Cape Town, a severe water shortage causes us to need them.

Among the possible solutions, the final one will require multifaceted approaches to water shortage, tuned to different environmental and societal situations. Desalination must be considered as a long-term fix for some of our fresh water problems. So far the downsides to this have been its cost and its environmental impact. Solar powered desalination is being implemented in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Chile, both countries with large deserts that border the ocean. The emission problems of desalination plants are a result of using fossil fuels to power them. Harm to marine life is also an issue, but not one that can’t be mitigated by technology and a rational balance between marine life issues and water needs. Concerns about cost must be weighed against the dangers of running out of water. There are other approaches to increasing water supplies without harming the environment,  related to catching rainwater and even mist. Greater access to groundwater systems is possible, but groundwater levels in many parts of our country as well as other countries have sunken and further mining of water runs risks to the ground surface above it.

The main lesson from the plight of Cape Town is that preparing for water shortages cannot rely only on conservation of resources, it must include a large focus upon securing new sources of fresh water. This focus must be coordinated with an emphasis upon decreasing fossil fuel use, which only hastens climate change, and has to be eliminated as a source of power for things such as desalination plants. Finally, we must view water scarcity as a global, not a national problem. Already, droughts have contributed directly to immigration from Africa to Europe and America, and indirectly by fostering tribal and international conflicts in areas affected by drought and famine. A world in which one half of the population enjoys enough water to sustain its way of life while the other half endures dying crops, famine and severe shortage of drinking water is not a world that can survive peacefully.

Reader Comments (2)

This is an excellent, well-researched, and vitally important article. It should be one of your articles that is syndicated. I hope it is.
The activism of the Baby Boomers stopped as we got busy with children and life. Conservation of water is one of the most critical issues of our time and activism has to be renewed. However, activism is predicated on awareness, and articles like yours serve to increase that awareness.
Let me tell you a story. Just last week I was ordering in a restaurant and when the server asked if I wanted water, I said my usual "No thanks, there's still the threat of a drought going on." His response was quick, "Yes, but your body needs to be hydrated." I was dumbstruck!
There seems to be a disconnect in our thinking about how our individual actions affect a global outcome. I think it's based actually on the goodness of people rather than selfishness. To look at our individual actions as having a global effect makes us feel responsible, and with that responsibility comes guilt when the outcome seems dire.
As Shakespeare wrote through Cassius' speech, "The fault, dear Brutus is not in the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
We have to stop being underlings, powerless children who can't look at the truth. We have to stop thinking that "something will happen to change this; it always does." It always DOESN'T, unless there is human intervention. That is the reason we are sentient beings, to figure it out, not to stand back and say, "Well, there's nothing I can do about it." We all know how we can contribute to alleviate this problem in our own way. At the very least, the next time anyone tells me, "You need to stay hydrated," I'm going to have my response ready and say, "I think it’s the world that needs to stay hydrated."

February 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBilllie Kelpin

Absolutely right, Billie!

February 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCasey

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