Ten good things about Cape Town’s drought

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The drought that’s hit Cape Town and surrounding areas‚ officially the worst in recorded history‚ has done us all some good.

1. It has heightened public awareness of the reality of the effect of climate change. The “debate” idea pushed by those too attached to or invested in the old order of doing things should have been firmly put to bed by now. The new way of doing things can’t be limited to water only: fires‚ migration‚ health‚ economy and security are part of the picture and a holistic response is required.

2. The world takes note with apprehensive interest. Even at Davos‚ the favoured‚ cool and well-watered Swiss meeting site of the World Economic Forum where talk is usually about economics‚ business and trade‚ India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi started the week by telling the 2500 leading politicians and businesses that climate change is the greatest threat to civilization. He was followed soon afterwards by our own Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa who said: “Climate change is a reality. We’re facing a real total disaster in Cape Town which is going to affect four million people.” Other water stressed cities such as Los Angeles‚ Sao Paulo and Singapore consider who will be next. The 17 sustainable development goals‚ which South Africa signed up for in 2015‚ come into 3D perspective. 

3. Realising that world‚ national and local leaders can do only so much‚ people have started working co-operatively and innovatively. There are domestic‚ street and faith-based responses‚ workplace plans and initiatives to support frail and vulnerable. As people work together‚ mesh talents and develop trust more dots are joined‚ giving issues of sustainability and co-operative solutions new meaning and practical application.

4. There has been a rapid water literacy and numeracy upgrade across society. People are interested and it is important to know that 25 litres of water weighs 25kg or where it goes if you have to flush it‚ what a catchment is and what happens in it.

5. Talking of flushing‚ the drought has brought to the fore the very long-standing but politically constrained topic of the need to move away from water-borne sewerage. Sufficient water meant the more affluent could afford this luxury. Scarcity means we all need to make a plan – good‚ appropriate and technically sound ones that should see the saving of at least 30 million litres of water a day. If modifications are made to all the other things we do that wastes water the savings become enormous. A few years ago water academic and activist Anthony Turton said South Africa does not have the dilution capacity for all its pollution. That’s even truer today. By addressing the problem as a priority we start mitigating the degradation of rivers‚ wetlands‚ estuaries and oceans too.

6. Government’s ability‚ at all levels‚ to plan realistically and respond to emergency situations appropriately is being tested and subjected to scrutiny. Not satisfied with glib answers or spin-doctoring the public is interrogating the reasoning and planning in a way that demonstrates deeper understanding of the issues. Can you really flush with seawater? Are 200 water points sufficient for three million people? Is saltwater intrusion into our groundwater likely? are the kinds of questions being put to politicians and officials who are also being swept along on a steep learning curve.

7. All the practical responses to the drought such as putting in a rain tank‚ bending the ball-valve arm down in your toilet cistern to reduce the flush volume or fitting aerators to tap nozzles have been a big boost for self-sufficiency and resilience thinking that is pollinating other areas of life including energy‚ waste reduction‚ transport efficiency and food security. The consequent empowerment that goes with positive feedback from such efforts means a trend towards taking charge of our needs and responsibilities rather than expecting someone else to do it. It also develops a sense of pride in when people solve problems.

8. The drought is a timely reminder of the need to decouple economic growth from resource exploitation and environmental degradation. People’s ability to halve their water consumption in a year and then do more shows what is possible. For example‚ could Cape Town’s very high fossil-fuel based energy footprint be reduced? Could the plastic waste stream from single-use packaging become a trickle? Is it feasible to so increase marine protected areas and compliance and change consumer behaviour so effectively that we pull back from day zero on the fishing front too?

9. This kind of circular thinking has also put the spotlight on the need for waste water recycling. Cape Town will be joining other major cities in making this part of the new normal. The benefits are significant: less effluent to the sea‚ less pollution into rivers‚ greater water security‚ tighter control on commercial and industrial outflows‚ more training and jobs for water technicians and developing understanding of groundwater recharge implications.

10. Queues at natural springs and seeps around the city testify to appreciation of ecosystem services from wetlands‚ rivers‚ the ocean‚ springs and aquifers and the need to protect these from pollution and overuse. You can take a wash in the sea‚ relax in the shade of riverine vegetation and strip nutrients from your grey water with the help of a home-planted wetland. Kikuyu grass is giving way to hardy indigenous plants and local hack groups taking out black wattle and Port Jackson are water heroes.

But not everyone is a hero. Before we get carried away with the idea of the drought being the best thing ever we must note the massive increase in the sales of bottled water and the filling of pools by commercial companies. These activities promote the idea of turning a common good - something everyone needs like water - into a commodity to make money from and pitches the haves against the have-nots.

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