This drought is driven by the climate crisis, not just bad weather

A general view of the critically low Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, 23 January 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

When extreme weather events happen, the narrative is either focused on severe floods or severe drought, with no mention of the fundamental driver, climate change. The solutions are misdirected to addressing the symptoms instead of addressing climate adaptation and response.

Crisis has the potential to elicit the best or the worst in people. The Minister of Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, reminds me of the old-age song Lala bhabhana, mus’ukulila, umam’uyeza…, which in the dominant lingua franca, English, approximately translates to “sleep small baby, do not cry, mom is coming.…”

While not implying she was a cry-baby in her early childhood, and considering her age, Mama Sisulu (the senior) must have sung this song to baby Lindiwe umpteen times. She is now repeatedly singing the same song to about 50 million baby South Africans, in the midst of the worst crisis in human history, climate change. No, there is ample reason to worry.

As if throwing money at the problem helps, the South African government carries an annual water infrastructure spend of approximately R42-billion. In the 2018/19 financial year, the Giyani Water Project received a share of approximately R3.5-billion of this allocation, while 108 villages in Limpopo are without basic water supply, while different parts of the state machinery continue to turn levers in different directions. Day Zero has come and gone in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. Johannesburg is on level two restrictions.

While the graphic images of Cyclone Idai, which devastated Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, are still fresh in our memory – a climate-driven disaster – South Africa is set on a climate change denialist path. Minister of Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu acknowledges the countrywide water-stress crisis and pacifies South Africans, imploring citizens to unleash prudence in their water-use regime.

In the same way that Cyclone Idai was framed a flood, the media continues to frame a climate-driven event as a mere drought. In the footsteps of Cyclone Idai, hurricane floods caused havoc in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, with the President acknowledging climate change in small print. While some segments of the media are starting to ask a wider set of critical questions relating to corruption, failing infrastructure, water management and skills, these remain pitched at a superficial level in relation to the bigger challenge that threatens the very survival of human society, the 21st century existential crisis.

In the wake of recent floods in Cape Town, a reporter blames lack of drainage systems in informal settlements, and in the same breath blames litter-blocked drains in respect of the suburbs of the rich and wealthy. The eyes are on infrastructure, with the absence and presence thereof blamed in the same breath.

In Johannesburg, on the back of stage two water restrictions, a fruitless blame game is playing itself out, with Rand Water laying the blame at the door of the residents for excessive use of water, while Johannesburg Water is blaming Rand Water for delivering volumes below what was contractually signed up for, advising residents to be on the lookout for trucks delivering water.

In Butterworth in the Eastern Cape taps are reported to have run dry. There, citizens are blaming the municipality and government for corruption, mismanagement, and not investing in water infrastructure. The municipality is confidently reporting the number of boreholes it is drilling as a solution to the problem. The Giyani Water Project in Limpopo is also busy drilling boreholes.

In all these three situations the narrative is either focused on severe floods or severe drought, with no mention of the fundamental driver, climate change. In a similar vein, the solutions are misdirected to addressing the symptoms, instead of addressing climate adaptation and response. These narratives do not only paper over the real causes of the manifestations, but frame the problem in a manner which fits routinised administrative practices of government drilling boreholes and trucking water.

In the midst of the crisis, half-truths and blatant lies lace up the narratives.

At a time when technological advances are at their peak, we are told climate is unpredictable. Today I know very well that the late rains expected in Limpopo will be flash floods, which implies that underground water aquifers will benefit very little. While everyone is drilling boreholes, eyes are off the burial practices. We know it will not be long before the underground water sources to which everyone is switching will become contaminated from leaching. While we are fed the narratives of trucking of water, and drilling of boreholes, these are liberally laced with opium – that these crises are events of nature.

Unfortunately, no one is asking fundamental questions underpinning the crisis we are all up against, the hard questions about the sell-by date of capitalism and imperialism. We (the baby South Africans) are told “there is no reason to panic”. Unfortunately, all these superficial narratives conceal the human fingerprints on the crisis, the growth of fossil fuel usage, the expansion of mechanisation, all underpinned by the expansion of capitalism and imperialism. Have we not reached the tipping point, in which the benefits of managing the environment are starting to exceed the costs of not doing so?

The close interconnections between water, energy and agriculture do not make life easy for the forthcoming water master plan. To purify and distribute water relies on energy inputs. Agriculture, the cornerstone of national food security, is also heavily reliant on water and energy inputs. The silo approach to planning water is doomed to fail before it starts. South Africa’s fragmented institutional approach to land, water, agriculture, energy, environment etc is doomed to fail.

Climate response is not a matter of presence or absence of water, even though these may be manifestations. Unfortunately, Lindiwe Sisulu’s purse has very little to contribute to bringing about lasting solutions to South Africa’s multiple land governance challenges, of which water is just one. Many of the challenges cannot be solved by individual countries acting in isolation, but could even be exacerbated by countries going solo.

Largely due to intertwined hydrological linkages juxtaposed with arbitrary colonial boundaries, we are heavily reliant on transnational agreements at the regional level. The spatial development patterns (locational) of cities (Johannesburg, Pretoria, Harare, Bulawayo, Francistown, Gaborone and Windhoek) are characterised by disconnection from water resources, whereby cities rely on water being pumped uphill while sewage and waste gravitates downward into storage reservoirs. This is one paradox which exacerbates water-stress challenges for most of SADC, often resulting in more severe consequences for poorer countries.

What South Africa is currently going through should be understood as part of the new normal, rather than wish it away. Part of the solution to the complex problems involves complex solutions, transnational and transdisciplinary approaches which defy linearity. South Africa’s economic power is potentially dangerous in regional dynamics. The days when the hydrologist and geologist could be secluded from each other and from social scientists are gone. All of these proposals entail complex processes of calibration over time.

There is reason to be very concerned. DM

Siyabulela Manona is a PhD candidate in Geography at Rhodes University.