Cape Town halting plans for desalination plants raises serious questions


Cape Town has moved directly from winter to a very hot summer. Whatever spring flowers graced our landscapes, were quickly scotched. Our country and city's precarious water resources call for a concerted effort by all stakeholders to secure our future.

Global warming is a scientific reality we cannot continue to deny. Denialists like Donald Trump are being increasingly challenged by their own citizens to stop their governments to stop wilfully abrogating their responsibility to protect citizens from harm and to secure their future.

The decision by the City of Cape Town to halt the roll-out of water desalination plants because our dams are more than 70% full is most astonishing. The science about our country's water scarcity contained in a 2010 report makes clear that we are vulnerable to increasing frequencies of Day Zeros. 

Global expertise has recently confirmed that we are on course to overshoot the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase beyond the 2010 levels. We are in the danger zone. Evaporation is already eroding our dam levels, and will continue to do so.

The question is why would the City of Cape Town leaders not use known cheap technologies to exploit the two oceans around us to provide citizens with regular reliable water supply? Why undermine the tourism industry with negative messages to our visitors about water scarcity when we could become self-sufficient in water as we enter the certainty of a warmer planet with less rain?

We need to ask: who stands to benefit from the decision to postpone water sufficiency action through desalination?

We now know more than before from all the horrors of state capture and abuse of power at the municipal levels that crises are often manufactured to enable allocation of emergency tenders to preferred suppliers. Is the City of Cape Town's delayed desalination plant action a strategic mistake or wilful abrogation of responsibility? Or is it a preparatory step to creating an emergency to benefit suppliers waiting in the wings?  

The responsibility of the City of Cape Town to the citizens of our city and country is to ensure provision of water as an essential basic need to all. The responsibility to promote and protect Cape Town as a tourist attraction is critical to ensure that we make a contribution to President Cyril Ramaphosa's efforts to kick-start the economy. Tourism as part of the services sector is a growing and sustainable source of inclusive growth that needs to be harnessed by all role players.

Cape Town and the Western Cape have the opportunity to leverage the expertise of the four higher education institutions located here to become a leader in innovative interventions to deal with climate change. New technologies in solar and wind energy are available to enable us to migrate to a low carbon future. 

We have the potential to leverage the Cape of Storms into a place where high-flying kites at 800 meters could transform wind power at night into base load to complement solar power.

South Africa is blessed with the resources to rise to the challenge of climate change and transformation of our socio-economic system toward greater inclusive sustainable development. Skills training including vocational skills to prepare the infrastructure for a transformed socio-economic system requires long term planning and strategic implementation processes. 

Crisis management of known risks such as interruption of water and energy requirements, is not an appropriate approach to governance and management of our common resources under these changed climatic conditions. We expect much more from our leaders than the current performance.

Residents of Cape Town have demonstrated their committed to changing consumption cultural patterns to save water and energy.  Our leaders owe it to us to secure supply of water and power as essential basic needs. The oceans, the aquifers, the sun and wind from the Cape of Storms provide all we need to remain a favoured destination for internal and international tourism. 

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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