Wasting water: a crisis and a sin!


In Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato Si', water is mentioned forty-seven times. Given the situation in South Africa, Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at what Pope Francis says in Laudato Si' and relates it to the experience of people living in Cape Town. He argues that the water conservation consciousness should take hold across South Africa. He warns us to be vigilant against the commodification of water and urges us to speak against governments that use water-cuts and sanctions as punitive measures to demand payment for municipal services. How we consume water is a moral question, and one that every person – not just in Cape Town – should reflect on. In a very real sense, wasting water is a sin!

Last week the leader of the DA announced that the much dreaded Day Zero would not come to pass if the residents of the Western Cape – and of Cape Town in particular – keep to the low water-usage measures, of less than fifty litres a day per person, as ordered by the City. At present, the metro's dam levels are only filled to 23.6% of their capacity. Hence the need for the stringent restrictions, applicable to level 6B, and  the punitive tariffs, imposed on those who exceed their allowance. This announcement has led to strong criticisms of the DA, the ruling party in the Western Cape. They are accused of incompetence in dealing with the crisis and are said to have used scaremongering tactics to raise tariffs. The City of Cape Town is also accused of failing to plan for the drought, despite being sufficiently warned by experts in studies commissioned by the City to study the problem.

I am not really interested in that argument, since I am one of those who believes the threat was real, even if the political and administrative response of the DA was just short of dismal. I am more interested in the water conservation conscience that the past few months has rightly instilled in most of us in Cape Town. I am now horrified, when visiting other cities, at the careless attitude given to water consumption by my fellow citizens. Running daily baths, taking long showers, a constant running water supply in urinals and taps to wash hands, having sparkling clean pools filled to the brim,  an excessive watering of gardens and the careless amount of water used at carwashes, to name but some.

All these things are anathema to the eyes of Capetonians. Even our crèches and schools are asking parents to wash their children’s dishes and utensils at home to meet the rations being applied. I am of the opinion that we should deploy Capetonians to all parts of the country to promote water conservation. After all, South Africa is a water-stressed country. We need to be aware of this and cannot compare ourselves with many countries where the norm is three hundred litres of water per person per day.

Pope Francis in his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si' (LS), when referring to our water resources, focuses on the disparities in access, quality, and in general water use between the wealthier more industrialized parts of the world and that of the poorer nations. He notes that in many parts of the world water is greatly exploited. This means that wealthier populations are exceeding the natural limits of the resource without meeting the basic needs of the poorest. This has been glaringly proven in Cape Town where the poor use only 4% of the city’s total water allocation! The more affluent, in the suburbs, are responsible for 18% of the city's water – despite making up only a third of its population. Shockingly, businesses use approximately 42% of this scarce resource. Pope Francis also expresses concern for the inefficient and wasteful use of water in both rich and poor regions:

“water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance.” (LS 30)

LS identifies several key water problems, including the lack of access to clean drinking water:

“indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” (LS 28)

The encyclical sensitizes us to the needs of the poor, especially those who still have no access to clean water. It was a running joke in Cape Town, during Day Zero anxieties, that the poor areas wouldn’t see the novelty in carrying water from water-points, because it was already part and parcel of their daily routine. Most poor people have always lived with less than thirty litres a day. Think about that the next time you complain about the poor not shouldering the national tax burden. After all, it is only fair that the people who are the heaviest users of our land’s natural wealth should shoulder most of the financial burden!

Pope Francis warns us too of the continued prevalence of water-related diseases afflicting the poor (LS 29) – an avoidable material burden on our national fiscus. It is much cheaper, and healthier, to provide the poor with proper sanitation and potable water than to deal with the avoidable burdens of disease on our healthcare system. The pope also warns against the contamination of groundwater (LS 29), and the trend towards privatization and commodification of a resource that Catholic Social Thought describes to be “a basic and universal human right” (LS 30). This is the complaint made by many of us against the present administration of the City of Cape Town when it recently proposed to hike the water tariffs.

Pope Francis decries that the “control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century” (LS 31) predicting the day when nations will go to war due to conflicts over access to and use of water. The current tensions between Egypt and those countries upstream of the Nile basin, like Sudan and Ethiopia, over the construction and effects of a massive dam built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, which is the waterway's main tributary, is but a taste of things to come.

This view is supported not only by Pope Francis. The National Constitution of our country also affirms that clean water is a basic human right. As people of faith, and members of civic organisations, we have the obligation to speak against governments that use water-cuts and sanctions as punitive measures to demand payment for municipal services. This is not only illegal and unconstitutional, but immoral. It is shameful that municipalities like the City of Cape Town continue this practice with impunity. These are the battles churches and civic organisations, like the Justice and Peace Department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, should be championing on behalf of the voiceless in our society.

Pope Francis echoes Catholic Social Thought when he says that

“access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” (LS 30)

He further states that

[f]resh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality.” (LS 28)

In Cape Town we really have had to learn this the hard way!

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar

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* 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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Wasting water: a crisis and a sin!