Environment

Water scarcity — Don’t panic but change consumption habits

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Parts of South Africa are, once again, facing water scarcity. The authorities are refraining from describing the emptying dams as a crisis, but Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moyo says that the current drought in Gauteng is a reminder to South Africans that the water that flows so easily from our taps is a precious commodity for those who live without it. It urges us to further solidarity with the plight of the poor and challenges us to change our own consumption habits.

It has been nearly two years since South Africa was rallying around Cape Town over their impending “Day Zero” when the city was in real danger of running out of water.

Fortunately, Day Zero never came. The heavens opened. The rains came down. The dams were filled. The drought was forgotten and many people went back to living as they had before.

Now again, nature has returned to tell us that the news of our environmental redemption was a little exaggerated. And rushed. The Vaal Dam, which provides water to one-third of the country’s population  — mostly in Gauteng — is currently only filled to less than 50 percent of its total capacity.

The Vaal Dam […] is currently only filled to less than 50 percent of its total capacity.

The Nqweba Dam in Graaff Reinet, which supplies nearly 38,000 residents of this Eastern Cape community, has dried up. So has the Middle-Letaba Dam in Mopani Muncipality, Limpopo Province, leaving 25,000 people without a stable water supply.

Despite the dire predicament in which thousands of citizens around the country find themselves in, Minister of Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu has said that there is no reason to panic because we have not reached a crisis point yet. She did, however, strongly urge South Africans to drastically cut back on their water usage.

Don’t panic, but maybe we should

As a government minister, Sisulu is expected to allay public fears and avert panic. This must be a standard formula in the ministerial handbook on communicating on a crisis.

Sisulu’s Transport counterpart Fikile Mbalula similarly told a media briefing that “we shouldn’t panic” over the fact that three aviation companies had some of their planes grounded over concerns about the expertise those overseeing the use of certain spare parts.

And therein lies the problem. We are too chilled as a country, even in a face of a crisis. The lack of urgency to prevent unnecessary commotion, the tendency of making people complacent while “matters are being dealt with”.

This is not an attitude we can take when it comes to water, especially in a water scarce country such as South Africa. Cyclical drought means that water usage should be a constant national emergency. Drought or not, there are thousands and thousands of people in South Africa who have to queue for water.

Cyclical drought means that water usage should be a constant national emergency.

When Cape Town faced its Day Zero, many South Africans were cynical about preparations to prevent water from running out because they face a daily Day Zero for years without anyone seeming to care. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have water running from our taps should recognise that access to clean water is a privilege that many other South Africans can only dream of.

An opportunity for solidarity and behaviour change

It is indeed a reflection of a world in which the plight of poor is invisible until the challenges they face daily only become noteworthy when they begin to affect the more affluent.

Chris Chatteris SJ in a February 2018 spotlight.africa article, warned those in Cape Town and other parts of the world who thought that their wealth would cushion them from the effects of the drought:

“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.”

Chris chatteris sj

This time, it is not just Capetonians but all South Africans who would have to learn to live like many already do in informal settlements on the peripheries of the cities and in many rural areas.

Drought and less predictable weather patterns are forcing the wealthy into a solidarity with the poor. Perhaps then they will start to appreciate that sustainable living is more effective than throwing money in an effort to mitigate against the effects of climate change.

Sustainable living is more effective than throwing money [to mitigate] the effects of climate change.

There is never a good time to panic. But it is always time to revisit how we use water and link this to how we live with nature as a whole. This is the call of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’:

Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.

Pope francis, Laudato Si’
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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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Water scarcity — Don’t panic but change consumption habits