Drought and floods:
Take an umbrella if it’s going to rain
By Jeff Rudin
Drought? What drought? All the talk in the second week of June is about floods and fires. Unpleasant memories have a short shelf-life; a reminder is therefore apposite. In the first week of June, the Mail & Guardian’s Sipho Kings noted:
“The Western Cape will run out of water by the end of August. That’s why religious leaders gathered at the foot of Table Mountain last week, praying for divine intervention. They have had no response. … Two years without rain has resulted in the province using more water than it has. … Demand for water in the province will exceed supply by the early 2020s – without a drought. “
This is why the Western Cape was declared a disaster zone on 22nd May. This is why the City of Cape Town introduced the highest of its four levels of water restrictions, as from 1st June.
For floods to follow prayers for rain might raise theological questions. Other people see droughts and floods as natural phenomena. For still others, the scientific evidence is that the droughts that have ravaged South and Southern Africa in the past two years (with crop failures that left half a million people going hungry) are neither divine nor natural. They are our first direct, mass experience of extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Climate change means that today’s extreme weather will become the new norm. Droughts, with the severity to warrant Level 4 water restrictions, are no longer going to be once-a-century happenings. Worse still, long periods of no water will be followed by short periods of far too much water.
The good news is that we know the cause of climate change: fossil-fuel based greenhouse gases. We also know that most of these gases are emitted because it serves the interest of financial capital and the large transnational corporations that dominate the world. This is why little is done to disturb the idea that economic health depends on the constant, compound growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
More good news is that renewable energy is both a technically viable and cheaper alternative to carbon-based coal, oil and natural gas.
Knowing all this makes it possible to avoid climate change catastrophe (by the mobilised people of the world forcing their governments to do what their governments explicitly accept must be done, but fail to do because of dominant, vested economic interests). The knowledge also allows us to plan for the droughts and floods that will still occur, in the immediate to near future, even if climate change were to be effectively addressed today.
Amongst the more immediate of the drought and flood counter measures are the following:
Leaking water has long been recognised as a major problem afflicting all South African municipalities. The precise amount of water being wasted is mostly unknown, as it is identified as “unaccountable water”, together with unpaid and stolen water. The most recent figure for unaccountable water is 37% nationally. Cape Town, however, claims that leaks are less than 10% of its total water.
Cape Town’s Level 3 Water Restrictions set the maximum daily use at 800 million litres. The new Level 4 maximum is 600 million litres. Using 10% as the water leakage in Cape Town, this still means a saving of a huge 80 million litres or so, if only the leaks were fixed.
Moving from the City to the Cape Province as a whole makes the potential water savings even more staggering. The Province used 243 billion litres of water in 2016. Assuming a conservative 15% provincial water leakage, this means that 36.4 billion litres of water are waiting to be saved.
Fixing water leaks is a labour-intensive activity that, moreover, does not require highly skilled workers. So fixing the leaks would also create a large number of desperately needed jobs.
Rainwater harvesting (RWH)
It never rains but it pours! Cape Town’s worst drought in over 100 years was broken by – floods. Apart from the death, destruction and trauma of the floods, much of the desperately needed water was washed away – lost – because it came in such swift excess. It has added only 1.5% to dam levels.
As with water leaks, harvesting rainwater is not rocket science. Imagine if every South African home, structure and building, other than shacks, was obliged, by law, to collect and store rainwater off roofs.
80% of South Africa’s 10 million houses are formal dwellings. So 8 million are available to be considered for RWH. This means a lot of water that would otherwise be wasted. It additionally creates more than enough demand to sustain a large growth in the local RWH market. And it means the creation of a large number of jobs.
Owners of most of the 8 million homes would, presumably, require some level of financial support for installing the compulsory RWH. Whatever the cost, it would be cheap when set against the costs of the drought and floods, even though RWH is hardly a sufficient response to either the flood or drought. Moreover, the taxes that would be derived from the greatly enhanced local industry, and the new, tax-paying workers, would go a long way to offsetting the financial costs to the state.
*See animated video on the benefits of rainwater harvesting produced by AIDC
Radical Economic Transformation
Radical changes to the economy are an essential part of a response to water scarcity. These economic changes include:
- Replace Coal as the Primary Energy Source as quickly as possible
Eskom produces some 95% of South Africa’s electricity, 90% fuelled by coal. A large amount of water is used in the mining of coal. Then, Eskom’s coal-fired power stations use 327 billion litres of fresh water per year. That amounts to a staggering 10,000 litres of water per second. Compare this to the 25 litres per day that the government says is sufficient to meet the basic water needs of each person. Eskom uses the same amount as 3,456,000 people. Yet the Department of Water is saying that there is neither enough water nor money to continue the free provision of 25 litres to everyone.
Renewable energy is now considerably cheaper than coal. Moreover, there are no longer any technical reasons why it cannot replace coal within 20 or even less years, with open cycle turbine backup when necessary. The government, however, chooses to privilege coal and nuclear. This is why it is seeking to place unexplained and arbitrary restrictions on the amount of renewable energy to be provided by 2040, through the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity (IRP 2016).
- Change agriculture to feed people
Agriculture contributes a tiny amount to South Africa’s GDP (2.3%) but is by far the largest single user of water (66%). This imbalance persists only because of the entrenched power of largescale commercial agriculture (along with a degree of inertia).
Radical (even just rational) economic development would address this uneconomic use of precious water. There is a myth that agriculture exists to provide the nation with food. In fact, what is grown is entirely determined by the agri-business imperative to maximise profit. This is why whole agricultural sectors, like wine, are primarily export oriented. This is why the unexpectedly large maize crop this year is an economic headache – falling prices in the (low-waged) domestic market have to be offset by searching for new export markets. Otherwise, 3.5 million tonnes will be wasted, according to the Business Day.
And of course, a quarter of the population continues to go hungry.
Agriculture actually designed to feed people, in a sustainable manner, would also result in a considerably more rational use of water. And it would create a very large number of new jobs.
Manufacturing actually designed to meet people’s urgent needs, rather than maximise investor profits, would have the same beneficial effects on saving water as rational agriculture. Water is part of the manufacturing process of most products, from the mining of the raw materials, through to the transport used to throw them away when they’ve come to their invariably planned, premature obsolescence.
Bottled water is a clear example of economic insanity precisely because it is a well-entrenched global industry worth billions. It is mainly concentrated in developed rich countries, which is exactly where bottled water is least needed. More water is used making the bottles than filling them. This is an invitation to look far more critically – radically – at who decides what to make, in what quantities and where.
Let’s begin this long overdue and wide-ranging exercise in our country. Drought followed by floods and fires ought to have alerted enough of us to climate change and the impact of global warming on a South Africa, that, even in the best of times, struggles to find water. We know enough to know what to expect.
When the weather forecast is rain, wear a raincoat.
Jeff Rudin is a Research Associate at Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC).