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Cape Town: Where's the Watering Hole?
Watering holes are a place vibrant with life, where all kinds of different animals come together for a shared goal surrounding a scarce resource. Now we have a place vibrant with life, a bustling city, where the watering hole has run dry, the reservoirs are empty and the people will be thirsty.
I lived in Cape Town for six months this past fall. Although as residents we were well aware of the drought and abided by our strict water restrictions, there was little outreach from the municipality on the actual severity of the drought, meaning that by the time I left South Africa at the end of December, I had absolutely no idea that the city was months away from cutting off the water supply.
Like most of South African life, this problem is studded with racial and class undertones that haven’t quite made the news headlines. City water is at an all-time low and yet unequal access to water creates an uneven playing field. Many of the wealthier residents have managed to get water tanks or dig boreholes to create a personal water supply. Yet, some of the communal taps in parts of the townships have already, without explanation, been turned off.
When the water does get turned off, it will only be shut off for a portion of the city – one million homes in the middle and upper-class neighborhoods – who use a large percentage of water. In order to prevent a “public health issue” for sanitation problems in the overcrowded parts of town and to keep the economy supported through tourism and restaurants, these areas will still have access to city water. Personally, I think it is already a public health issue.
But the thing is Cape Town is not the only city to have reservoirs at unthinkably low levels nor is it the first place to run out of water. In the last five years, there have been a dozen regions that have experienced different levels of drought, from California to Brazil and large portions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East. For at least a month every year, 2.5 billion people lack access to fresh water.
The worst combination is drought and war. In 2015, 50% of Yemenis struggled to find water on a daily basis. Jordan, already in a water strife, is struggling to cope with the added pressure of increases in population due to Syrian refugees. Gaza’s tight water supply gets routinely interrupted by Israeli forces. Iran is also facing serious water shortages.
And it isn’t going to get any better. One of the worst aspects of climate changes is going to be extreme water conditions – from droughts to floods. Water, often taken for granted in our area of the world, is going to become a necessity again, one that wars are raged over, one that dictates movement and population growth, and one that ensures wealth and well-being.
The good news is there are some alternatives. Singapore, an island lacking its own consistent water supply, has managed to forge a system to ensure water security for its country through a combination of desalination, importing, wastewater management and rainwater collection. Unfortunately, these are expensive practices and it is going to take a global effort to make water security a reality.
The drought in Cape Town is getting so bad that its residents have been restricted to just 50 liters (13 gallons) of water...