Our water crisis

Pete Bower

Unless a miracle occurs in the next few short weeks, and the heavens open above the mountains surrounding the Cape Peninsula, Cape Town will become the first world city in modern history to run out of water.

For the city fathers now predict that day to happen in mid-April. From that day, taps in most of the city’s residential areas will run dry and the city’s nearly four million residents will be required to queue at 200 designated collection points where tankers will dispense a few litres at a time.

Of course this won’t be anything new to residents of many of the city’s poor areas, as it wouldn’t to residents of many townships throughout South Africa, where dry taps are a part of modern life, but for the blue rinse brigade of Bishopscourt and Sea Point this will bring a whole new set of challenges. How, for example, is a retired old biddy living out her twilight years in a flat in a Sea Point high-rise, expected to wrestle a 25 litre container of water upstairs?

The notion that a world-class city and major tourist destination  could run out of water is unbelievable. Yet it starkly demonstrates the incompetence of our government. For the provision of water to inhabitants is one of the most basic functions of any government or civil administration. But it is one that requires careful planning, and on-going attention to maintenance and support. Water infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight, Dams take decades to build, pipelines much be dug, purification plants built and pumping stations maintained. In all these areas, the cadre-deployments who have replaced much of South Africa’s civil administration over the past 25 years have been shown up as woefully ~ even criminally ~lacking.

In fact, very little has been done by national government to expand the water reticulation of the city of Cape Town, despite the fact that the population of the city has doubled in the past two decades. Thus, it is small wonder that the dams that were built to supply a metropolitan area of two million residents would run dry when expected to supply four, especially when faced with a couple of years of dry weather.

So one should be wary of blaming the current crisis on a few years of drought. All the current dry years has done is highlight, firstly, the fact that predictions up to two decades ago of a drier western half of southern Africa as a result of climate change have proved spot-on, and, secondly, the fact that a lack of development of additional water infrastructure to cope with the growing population was, at some stage, bound to become a crisis.

But Cape Town has been getting the lion’s share of the publicity, probably because of its iconic tourism status. Up the East Coast things are just as bad, if not worse.

Small towns around Port Elizabeth, for example, already have the tanker-delivery story well entrenched, and PE itself will soon run out.

Further inland, things are no better. In Beaufort West, for example, Gift of the Givers has just sunk a borehole for the town, though why a charity organisation should provide a borehole for public use when that should be a function of national government is a question which needs asking.

And, of course, town dams throughout the Little and Great Karroo have been dry for years.

And it’s not only people who are suffering. Western Cape agriculture has cut its water consumption drastically, which has affected the grape and deciduous fruit industries, so one can expect a smaller wine vintage and fewer fruit exports ~ and higher prices in the supermarkets.

Likewise, citrus is falling off the trees in the Gamtoos Valley because of a lack of water, so one can expect a smaller Eastern Cape citrus crop, and thus higher prices there, too.

But why should this concern us, smallholders in Gauteng? Because the provision of adequate, clean water should be a national concern. We are not immune to the effects of drought, as the state of the Vaal Dam in the winter of 2016, showed.

And that water which we do have we are wasting woefully. The Vaal River as it passes Parys is now no more than an open drain, its turgid brown waters emitting the unmistakable pong of raw sewage, and its surface covered in a light coating of detergent bubbles, all the result of the breakdown of treatment plants up river, and the lack of enforcement of municipal and national water regulations ~ in itself another example of the incompetence of the ANC government over the past 24 years.

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