Cape Town’s water crisis is a warning for us all

In the age of 24/7 news, our appetite for shock and awe has become insatiable, writes Joyce Fegan.

We’ve seen images of decapitated bodies circulating on social media, we’ve read about the YouTube star who posted a video of an alleged suicide victim for his audience of 15m teenagers, and we’ve watched footage of bodies being trampled during terrorist attack.

But there is something uniquely disturbing about seeing several million men, women, and children forming an orderly queue to fill water bottles.

People queue to collect water from a natural spring outlet in the Cape Town, South Africa. Pic: AP Photo

The 3.7m people who live in the South African megacity of Cape Town may soon run out of water.

They are living on rations of 13.2 gallons, or 50 litres, of water each a day.

According to the city of Cape Town’s water dashboard, their damn reserves are at 25%. Politicians are hoping for rain.

June 4 is Day Zero: the day the taps will officially run dry.

But what’s a city, 14,000km away, got to do with us?

Unlike the Trócaire box that sat staring at you from your kitchen windowsill for the duration of Lent, it is unlikely that redirected pocket money will make much of a dent in this crisis.

Parents are also just as unlikely to say: ‘Drink up that glass of water now, think of all the parching children in Africa.’

This ecological and humanitarian disaster is not material for a guilt trip.

According to an article in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the adult human body is 60% water, with some organs, like the lungs, comprised of 83%.

Humans, depending on their energy expenditure and the temperature of their environment, can survive six days without water.

When Nasa’s Curiosity Rover first landed on Mars, in 2012, its primary goal was to look for traces of life, and so it started searching for signs of water.

No water, no life. It is a simple equation, for which there are no substitutes.

We are developing driverless cars and building drones that can deliver the week’s grocery shop, yet humans still have not found a way to survive more than six days without water.

So while there may not be much we can do to alleviate a water crisis in another hemisphere, we are connected to these 3.7m strangers by our basic human need for water.

The Cape Town crisis might have nothing to do with us, but our fellow man’s dire reality certainly gives us pause for thought.

In Ireland, while we might not be able to relate to the famine in Yemen, the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people, or the civil war in South Sudan, we can relate to a water crisis.

Everyone has been thirsty, if not parched, more than once in their lives; most have had or will have a ‘boil water notice’, and some have had burst pipes after a cold winter spell.

Water, after oxygen, is our most basic human need. Despite all our complaining about our weather, the crisis in Cape Town is a stark reminder of the luck of our draw.

Your last shower — how long were you in for? Turning on the tap for a drink of water — how long do you leave it run, so it is nice and cold?

When was the last time you took leave from your ruminating thoughts about house prices, traffic jams, and mounting housework to reflect on all that we unconsciously take for granted?

In the event that there is nothing we can do about Cape Town’s great emergency, at least be deeply and consciously grateful.

Just as their crisis has little to do with us, you could argue that its solutions don’t, either.

But similar to the gratitude wake-up call, the answers to their problems show that there is always a solution.

Human are ingenious. So far, in the short, 6,000-year history of human civilisation, we have transplanted organs, X-rayed bones buried below sheets of tissue, and connected billions of people through a global communications network known as the internet. Where there is a will, there is a way.

In Cape Town, there are already radical ideas being tabled about how to avert Day Zero. Desalination is one of these solutions and it is not even that radical.

The arid Canary Island of Fuerteventura desalinates its surrounding seawater with wind turbines. It’s used for showering, brushing teeth, cleaning, and gardening. 

The renewable energy solution that transforms the Atlantic into useable water is a win-win for all.

And just like Fuerteventura, Cape Town is a coastal city, bordering water.

Other solutions are being suggested by the very expert who flagged the problem in Cape Town more than 20 years ago.

South African scientist, Gordon Maclear, wrote a technical report in 1995, issuing a warning that Cape Town would eventually have a water crisis.

The saying ‘no water, no nothing’ “summarises the inestimable value of water,” he wrote.

The hydrologist now believes that an underground metro would alleviate the problem by uncovering a vast source of water below the earth’s surface.

If built, it would also ease the city’s extreme traffic congestion and do so sustainably. Another win-win solution in the face of a crisis.

The lesson for us, all the way up here in the northern hemisphere, is that we should listen to the experts and the scientists, when they ring their bells of warning.

Climate change is here. Our oceans are filling up with plastic. China is no longer taking our rubbish, so more is being incinerated. The planet is heating up.

But instead of being petrified by the news, take action to alleviate the anxiety, and become empowered, as opposed to paralysed.

Voice, an environmental Irish charity, is a good place to start. If you email, you can find out about free recycling workshops in your area.

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