A Water Crisis in Cape Town (And Around the Globe)

Cape Town is the first modern day capital city to ever face a critical drinking water crisis. Such an existential threat – water, unlike oil or diamonds, is necessary to human existence. This calls for some fresh thinking. Conservative estimates have it that water will run out in Cape Town in July. "Day Zero" is the term given to when water reservoirs in Cape Town reach the critical 13.5% capacity, and taps are turned off.

The so-called “Day Zero” – when the water runs out – is estimated to arrive as soon as July 9, only a few months away, according to the city's executive deputy Mayor, Alderman Ian Nelson. If this apocalyptic scenario in one of the world’s great cities occurs, emergency measures have been put in place. 200 water collection spots have been set up and residents will be limited to 6.6 gallons a day. Four million people would be affected by this rationing.

The reasons for the drought in Cape Town are twofold: the city almost total reliance on rainwater and recent drought. Despite a sophisticated water conservation policy, the decline in rainfall – a result of global warming – struck the well-managed city by complete surprise. News24 has done an excellent analysis of the water crisis, using data from the South African Weather Service (SAWS) that goes back to the 1800s. One conclusion: “… the 2017 rainfall for that station, and importantly the mean of three years prior to 2017 were lower than in any period experienced by this station since 1920.” Looking backward to several dam stations using the SAWS data, News24 also concluded the water crisis “shows that 2017 and the period 2015 to 2017 were the driest since 1933. This translates into a drought return period of once in 84 years, possibly rarer.” The records do not go far enough to be exact.

Water crises are happening across the globe, not just in South Africa. Kenya is already experiencing water rationing after their first water crisis in 40 years. Deforestation is the main problem in Kenya’s water crisis. There is also question that the Ethiopian Renaissance dam – not, to be sure, a natural occurrence – could cause major drought problems in Sudan and Egypt. Water insecurity, for whatever reason, has become a global problem. And the solution will not come from doubling down on nationalism.

Further, water crises to some degree or another are faced by Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Brisbane, Australia. The Indo-Gangetic basin is being used at unsustainable levels. Even rural America has a drinking water crisis, of quality though, not of quantity. Flint, Michigan has gone over 1400 days without clean water.

“You have to manage water as stock,” said director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, Dr. Clive Lipchin to The Jerusalem Post. “You have to think about managing water as a flux, and you have to think about water as a commodity ... We want to see water as a basic human right, something that cannot be denied to people because water is life. But we must, however, also understand that water is not free. It costs a lot – not for the water, but managing water costs money, treating it, storing it, pumping water – all of that costs money.”  Lipchin was speaking at a symposium that included The Wandile Zulu Foundation, together with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Attendees of the symposium included water entrepreneurs, officials from the city of Johannesburg, members of the Jewish community, and representatives of South African water utility Rand Water. Lipchin has extensive experience with international water crises, particularly the Sea of Galilee’s shortages. “(I)n the mid-1990s, Israel was where Cape Town, South Africa, and many places are," Lipchin said, putting things in perspective.

How did we get to this post-apocalyptic water crisis situation?

The big problem is that 884 million citizens of the world do not have access to water, and with global warming, the problem is going to become unsustainable. "There’s plenty of water on the planet to satisfy the needs of everyone… and far more,” said Gary White, CEO of Water.org to the Chronicle for Philanthropy podcast. “The question is where is that water relative to where people live? How clean is that water? And what is the cost to treat the water, to clean it up so that it is of drinking water quality?" The solution must come via something larger than national interest.

Corporate partnerships and financial institutions are doing some significant and noteworthy work. Cricketers are donating to South Africa, their homeland. Israel’s insertion in the Cape Town water crisis may point to a solution, or at least a direction for the solution: internationalism. Crowdsource the problem: data sharing internationally – including sharing satellite data – increases the likelihood of a solution by putting more eyeballs and brainpower towards a solution. The World Economic Forum has already named water crises as a top global risk. To ignore it in South Africa or Brazil or Australia is to kick the can down the road.

Perhaps it is time to look at problems on a vast, existential level with a larger outlook than America, or UK or France first. Perhaps the universe is telling us through a glass darkly that it is time, after all these millennia of human civilization, to put the globe first if we want to continue on this glorious starship.