Water scarcity is one of the most imminent challenges the world currently faces. As a result of lack of access to or a physical shortage of water, 700 million people face a water scarcity crisis. Even more startling is the 1.6 billion people who face economic water shortage because their state cannot afford water infrastructure. Moreover, water consumption throughout the last century has increased at twice the rate per population growth. This further exacerbates the already limited resources, creating a situation in which 1.8 billion individuals are expected to face absolute water scarcity by 2025. By 2030, The United Nations Commission to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) estimates that between 24 and 700 million people will be displaced as a result of water scarcity.
Global attention has turned to Cape Town in South Africa, where water is expected to completely run out by July 9, 2018. However, Cape Town is not the only city with a fast approaching water crisis. In 2015, the water reservoir in Sao Paulo, Brazil, fell below 4% capacity and the city had only 20 days of drinking water left. Sao Paolo’s water shortage was exacerbated by deforestation, pollution, a zika outbreak, and the vast economic disparities of its citizens. The city implemented 12 hour water cut offs to help preserve their dwindling water supply. While not as dramatized, Beijing is also facing one of the most severe water shortage crisis of any city. The World Bank classifies water scarcity as when an individual has access to less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per year. In Beijing, the average water consumption among its 20 million inhabitants is only 145 cubic meters. There are a variety of factors that work together to put Beijing at risk for water scarcity, including: their disproportionately large population in comparison to their direct access to fresh water and severe pollution, which has contaminated some of the only viable water sources. A study by Columbia University analyzed Chinese water reservoirs levels from 2000-2009 and determined that the water supply decreased by 13% in that period. In order to combat the problem, China has funded education initiatives focused on water conservation and built a slew of water diversion projects. However, these pressing water shortages are not just relegated to the global south. International megapoles like London, Tokyo, Moscow, and Miami are among the most vulnerable to an imminent water scarcity crisis.
The city of Cape Town is the economic and tourist hub of South Africa. Source: Pexels.
As in most cases, Cape Town’s water crisis cannot be solely analyzed as a scientific conundrum. While Cape Town has experienced an abnormally small amount of rainfall the last three years, the pressing crisis is the result of long term mismanagement. Other factors which contributed to the current system are the remnants of apartheid rule and the laissez-faire elitist attitude of the Democratic Alliance (DA). In addition, the DA’s complicated relationship with The National South African Ruling Conference and African National Congress Party (ANC) and South Africa’s widespread economic disparity were factors. All of these elements were further exacerbated by Cape Town’s inability to recognize or at least admit to the coming water scarcity crisis until last year.
Cape Town’s, and in fact the worlds focus, has been on “day-zero”. “Day-Zero” has now been estimated as July 9 2018, pushed back from April. It represents the date that Cape Town will completely run out of water. When this occurs Cape Town will become the first major city of the modern era to be totally without water. Extensive measures are currently being undertaken to hold off “day-zero”, which is feared will result in “anarchy.” The current plan of South African officials is to try and get through the next months using as little water as possible. It is hoped that by the end of winter, enough water will have fallen to keep the city out of jeopardy of a “day-zero” situation.
The measures that have been enacted penetrate nearly every aspect of daily life, when drastically curbing water usage societal challenges emerge. Currently, Cape Town residents are only permitted 50 litres of water a day. In comparison, Americans use an average of 400 litres (88 gallons) of water and British people use an estimated 150 litres a day. Cape Town’s citizens are being advised to avoid flushing the toilet, use buckets to collect spare water from their showers, and use hand sanitizer instead of soap and water to wash hands. The Western Cape government (of which Cape Town is a part) will fine excessive water users, and has forbidden municipal water from being used in pools, irrigation, and the washing of cars.
The water crisis is not just a concern for Cape Town urbanites but also the farmers who live north of the city. These farmers independently manage their water reservoir capacities and unlike the DA city planning efforts, they began conserving water before the situation reached crisis level. These farmers believe climate change is real and that effective water management will be a cornerstone of its prevention. In many ways, South African farmers have accepted defeat, they released 10 million litres of water from their dams into the city of Cape Town, this generous donation allowed “zero-day” to be pushed back to April (it has since been moved to July 9). However, this decision, as well as the wider water restrictions, heavily impacts South African farmers, despite their relative water abundance when compared to metropole Cape Town. Crops will die and food prices will skyrocket, as irrigation is heavily taxed and water becomes a luxury commodity.
The water shortage in Cape Town has become a humanitarian crisis, as socio-economic status, magnified by the nations apartheid past, creates a stark divide in citizen responses. Cape Town’s wealthy, and usually white citizens, hire private companies to dig boreholes and wells in their backyard. They invest in desalination machines which create clean drinking water and water safe enough to fill their pools. They even invest in washing machines which operate on less water per cycle. These luxuries each cost thousands of pounds, the elite of Cape Town are investing millions to safeguard themselves from the effects of the drought. They can afford to buy water bottles in bulk even with their inflated prices and foreign shipping fees. On the other hand, Cape Town’s poorest, and often black citizens, live in shanty-like towns on the cities periphery. Their geographical locations in itself, hours commute from the city-center, is the long-standing effect of apartheid era relocation policies. Here, South Africans face the tough reality of being reliant on government measures to remedy the crisis. When the water eventually does run out, their only option will be to buy expensive bottled water and to eat less.
The water crisis is a microcosm through which to view the wider socio-economic inequalities that plague South Africa: 10% of the population owns 90-95% of all assets, in nations with developed economies this number is usually between 50-75%. Even more staggering is that the poorest 50% of the population has no measurable assets whatsoever. Cape Town’s imminent water crisis is rooted in the nations apartheid past and severely exacerbated by socio-economic inequalities which are tied not only into race, but also political party allegiances and government mismanagement.