Clem Sunter

What if the taps run dry?

2017-01-17 14:19
Water tap. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Water tap. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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“The sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view…” So sang Buddy Holly in a memorable song around sixty years ago. However, a threat to our existence is now looming over us which is seldom explored in the media. 

We obsessively follow news about the good guys and the bad guys belonging to the human species and what they are doing to each other, but we seldom think of Mother Nature until after a catastrophe has happened.

In my opinion, one of the biggest existential threats facing the metropolitan population of Cape Town now numbering 3.7 million people, is running out of water, despite the current restrictions imposed on water usage. The combination of a growing population on the one hand and the higher temperatures and more erratic weather patterns associated with climate change on the other is increasing the probability of a worst-case scenario regarding water shortages. 

Dam levels are now worryingly low which can obviously have an impact on urban consumption, but also the agricultural industry including wine production. Fires, which often increase in frequency and intensity at times of drought, have already done considerable damage, which could have been a lot worse but for the heroic actions of our fire fighters. The question is not so much what happens this year, but what will happen next year if there is another poor rainy season.

In the early part of this century, I was asked by the Local Government Managers Association in Australia to do a series of scenario sessions with their largest cities including Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In Perth, we played a scenario called ‘Parched Perth’ caused by an unusual increase in the population due to the expansion of the mining industry in Western Australia. They had also had years of relatively low rainfall. In the end, after considering a canal from the Fitzroy River up north, they decided to go for desalination plants which currently supply over a third of Perth’s water.

More recently, in August 2014, I facilitated a session in Adelaide where concerns were expressed about the declining volumes of water flowing into South Australia from the Murray River. The city already has a desalination plant which provides up to 50% of its needs but much of the conversation centred on smarter water management techniques to reduce demand by farmers and cut general wastage and leaks.

Perhaps the City of Cape Town management are having the same conversation right now. I read an article somewhere about a feasibility study that has been done into constructing a desalination plant in the region of Cape Town which estimated the upfront capital cost at R16.5 billion and annual running costs of R1.2 billion. It could supply 450 million litres daily which is well over half the present consumption of 854 million litres a day (which the city wants to reduce to 800 million litres in the short term). The question is what is next?

All in all, I sincerely hope that the topic of long-term water supply is receiving the attention it deserves; not just here in the Western Cape but elsewhere in South Africa. Personally, I put water ahead of electricity as a basic human need. This becomes suddenly apparent when you turn on the tap and there is nothing coming out of it. At least you can use a candle when the lights go off.

Meanwhile there are three scenarios. The best one is that Mother Nature comes to our rescue with good rains this year as has been experienced in California. The second scenario is that the drought persists but we do take steps to provide alternative water sources. The third is that we create a large number of climate refugees seeking water elsewhere in the country and the world.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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