Beyond the clamour around who’s to blame, conflicting scenario descriptions of Day Zero and its predicted date, individual and community responses and helpful tips, the drought - now officially the worst on record without historical precedent - has done us all some good.
This is according to a media release issued by the Wildlife & Environment Society of South Africa, who identified 10 good things about this natural phenomenon:
1. It has heightened public awareness of the reality of climate change impacts. The impact can’t be limited to water only. Fires, migration, health, economy and security are patently part of the picture and an holistic response is required.
2. The world takes note with apprehensive interest. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that climate change is the greatest threat to civilization. Other water-stressed cities like Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Singapore consider who will be next.
3. Communities have started working co-operatively and innovatively together. This is after realising that leaders global, national and local can do only so much. There are domestic street and faith based responses, workplace plans and frail support initiatives. As people work together, mesh talents and grow trust more dots are joined, giving issues of sustainability and cooperative solutions new meaning and practical application direction.
4. There has been a rapid water literacy and numeracy upgrade across society. People are interested and it is important to know what a catchment is and what happens in it. Some people also did not know that 25 litres of water weighs 25 kg or thought about where water goes if you have to flush it.
5. Scarcity means we all need to make a plan. We need a good, appropriate, technically sound plan that would see the saving of at least 30 million litres of water per day. Controversial water academic and activist, Anthony Turton, said South Africa does not have the dilution capacity for all its pollution. That’s even truer today. By addressing the water scarcity problem we start mitigating the degradation of rivers, wetlands, estuaries and oceans too.
6. Not satisfied with glib answers or spin-doctoring. The public is interrogating the reasoning and planning in a way that demonstrates deeper understanding of and engagement with issues. Government’s ability, at all levels, to plan realistically and respond to emergency situations appropriately is being tested and subjected to scrutiny. Can you really flush with seawater? Are 200 water points sufficient for 3 million people? Is saltwater intrusion into our groundwater likely? - are the sorts of questions being posed to politicians and officials who are also, happily, being swept along on a steep learning curve.
7. All the practical responses to the drought have been a big boost for self-sufficiency and resilience thinking. Things like organising a rain tank, bending the ball-valve arm down in your toilet cistern to reduce the flush volume or fitting aerators to tap nozzles have been a big boost for self-sufficiency and resilience thinking that is pollinating across other areas of life including energy, waste reduction, transport efficiency and food security. The consequent empowerment that goes with positive feedback from such efforts means a trend towards less externalization of our needs and responsibilities and a greater sense of pride in problem solving.
8. The drought is a timely reminder of the absolute need to decouple growth from resource exploitation and environmental degradation. People’s ability to halve their water consumption in a year and then do more shows what is possible. Can the fossil-fuel based energy footprint be reduced dramatically? Could the plastic waste stream from single-use packaging become a trickle? Is it feasible to so increase marine protected areas and compliance and change consumer behaviour so effectively that we pull back from Day Zero on the fishing front too?
9. This kind of circular thinking has also put the spotlight on the essential need for waste water recycling. Waste water recycling should be part of the new normal. The benefits are significant: less effluent to the sea, less pollution into rivers, greater water security, tighter control on commercial and industrial outflows, more training and jobs for water technicians and developing understanding of groundwater recharge implications.
10. Appreciation of ecosystem services from wetlands, rivers, the ocean, springs and aquifers and the need to protect these from pollution and overuse . You can take a wash in the sea, relax in the shade of riverine vegetation and strip nutrients from your grey water with the help of a home-planted wetland. Kikuyu grass is giving way to hardy indigenous plants and local hack groups taking out black wattle and Port Jackson are water heroes.