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Cape Town water crisis: A drought for one is a drought for all

How Cape Town handles the current water crisis is important because it will teach all South Africans important lessons about climate shocks that will soon affect everyone. Chris Chatteris SJ argues that how humanity responds to climate change and the climate shocks that follow will make and mark the 21st century.

A visitor from another world would surely be flabbergasted at the reactions of the local earthlings to the Cape Town water crisis. If our extra-terrestrial visitor asked to be taken to our leader, we would be hard pressed to know which person we should approach – Patricia de Lille? (like Jacob Zuma, her party is trying to oust her, but she’s hanging on); Helen Zille? (she’s currently muscling into de Lille’s urban turf, but still not able to resist tweeting about the benefits of colonialism) or Mmusi Maimane? (he has had to be reminded that the Government of the Western Cape is not the DA and vice-versa). At the moment, the politicians are playing power games and the rest of us are playing the blame game.

The temptation to point fingers is strong, and we would have to explain this to our guest. Some find a certain satisfaction in the humbling of a smug Cape Town, a place which always seems to be sporting the label ‘exceptional’ and ‘world class’. But soon it will face the possibility of Day Zero and daily water rationing will become the reality of some four million people.

As for those who used to mock and jeer at environmentalism, environmentalists and the science of climate change, I myself have to confess that it’s sweet to hear the deafening silence in their corner.

But the obvious problem is that one cannot drink power games, even if you are drunk on power, nor does the blame game satisfy any physical thirsts. And sweet schadenfreude will be a poor substitute for a full 25 litre container on Day Zero if it does actually happen.

The world may be taken aback by the fact that this is happening in the city of the Waterfront and the Winelands, but this is not just about Cape Town. The political dust being kicked up over this crisis is obscuring the fact that other parts of our dry country are also running out of water. Some already have, but they’re too small for us to notice. Cape Town is not the exception; it just happens to be the big, visible pioneer. What happens here over the next few months will happen to other regions of our land and our world in the not so distant future. We are in this together. A drought for one is a drought for all.

Cape Town is the canary in the mine shaft and the bird is showing clear signs that we have a major problem with our crazy use of a finite water supply in an era of climate change. Adaptation is advisable, which will require cooperation at every level, especially political. Mitigation is also advisable. We should be doing much more to reduce our global carbon footprint which has resulted in extreme weather conditions occurring with greater frequency. The ‘carbonistas’ among us (most of us reading this article I suspect) will have to ponder on our lifestyle of private vehicles, air travel and high consumption of meat products.

What we have learnt so far, a lesson which has contributed to the panic among the city authorities, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to persuade people to reduce their water consumption. The statistics show that over 50% of us do not seem to be making much effort. Whether it is a communication issue or blatant apathy, this leads to more anger directed at those who somehow think they are exempt from making any personal sacrifice for the common good.

I suppose there is an exceptionalism that we all tend towards when a crisis looms, a pathetic hope that this does not really apply to me, that I am excused. One sees this in high-income countries where some people think that they are going to escape the ravages of climate change. Well, Mother Nature has news for them. She has news for us in Cape Town. She has news for us all: the news is always the same – when the commons (like the water supply) collapse due to our prodigal pillaging of them, we will all suffer – rich and poor alike. Capetonians could all soon be standing in queues like the poor in informal settlements have always done. Everyone in the country will suffer from the economic impact of this crisis. Agriculture and the tourist trade employ around 600,000 people in the Western Cape.

A colleague who is both a scientist and a theologian recently commented sadly but soberly to me on this crisis: “This is just the beginning, unfortunately.” He was talking about the world, not just the Cape.

Well, despite the unpromising signs, my prayer is that Cape Town will rise to the challenge and recover something of the spirit of the South Africa of the 1994 elections and thus give hope to a world that is watching us closely and anxiously. How Cape Town handles this crisis is important because it will teach the world important lessons about extreme weather conditions. And how humanity responds to climate change and the climate shocks that come with it will make and mark the 21st century.

Image: EC/ECHO Maria Olsen

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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