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26 May 2017 17:01 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Is Joburg really drinking Lesotho dry?

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Recent articles in the Mail & Guardian warn South Africans that using too much water has a disastrous impact on “people making sacrifices somewhere far away”. But if Johannesburg slashed its water use, would the rural poor of Lesotho really have any more?

The drought affecting most of the country for the last year or two has not escaped the environmental prophets of doom, who like to paint every whim of nature as a punishment brought upon us by our sinful prosperity.

Sipho Kings, the Mail & Guardian’s environmental reporter, has dutifully penned a pair of articles describing the plight of peasants in Lesotho, and absurdly blaming it on everyone in Johannesburg who has a green lawn.

In the article, paid for by Climate Home, a “news” project of the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, an international research and advocacy group funded by major Western governments, Kings offers a sad, emotive snapshot of people living near the Katse Dam in the highlands of Lesotho. They have little running water and suffer the same drought that has struck South Africa.

He calls the current drought, which is entering its third year, “the worst drought in living memory”, but one assumes this applies only to very young people. Droughts in South Africa and Lesotho are a routine effect of the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the Pacific, which influences weather patterns around the world. Three “very strong” El Niños are on record since 1950, which occurred in 1982/3, 1997/8 and 2015/6. As a result, we’re having the worst drought since 1982/3.

Another way to phrase this is that of the three very strong El Niños, this drought is not (yet) the worst one. South Africa’s maize yield is expected to be the worst since the low of 2007, or perhaps slightly lower, but it was even worse in 1995, 1992, 1984 and 1983, all of which were El Niño years. For relief, we’ll have to wait for the next La Niña, which has the opposite effect of El Niño. It broke the seven-year drought of the 1980s, but last occurred in 2011/12.

So it is not the worst drought in living memory, unless you’re too young to remember the 1980s.

This is not to invalidate Kings’s basic premise, that water in major cities like Johannesburg is scarce, in part due to the drought, and that consumers consequently need to use it sparingly. However, guilt-tripping the rich about poor people in Lesotho is pure nonsense.

He refers, of course, to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which was established by treaty between South Africa and the mountain kingdom. It was designed to solve one of South Africa’s biggest problems. The problem was not the country’s supposed water scarcity – although droughts have always been common – but that Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, is the largest city in the world not to have been built on a major river or coast. Even with the best rainfall in the world, it wouldn’t have enough water to sustain its people and industry.

The project consists, so far, of the Katse Dam and Mohale Dam, which are interconnected, and supply the Muela Dam with its 72MW hydro power station. This has made Lesotho self-sufficient in power generation. From there, two tunnels supply water to South Africa, at a price that Kings reports to be R700-million per year, or 10% of that country’s entire budget.

Under ordinary circumstances, the water emerges into the Ash River north of Clarens in the Free State, which flows into the Liebenbergsvlei River, the Wilge River, and ultimately the Vaal Dam. During drought conditions, however, it can also be diverted to the Little Caledon River to supply parts of the Free State and Lesotho border towns including the capital Maseru, before flowing to the Gariep Dam on the Orange River.

It may be true that the village Kings describes has only one tap, or lacks pumps to supply water to higher altitudes, but this has nothing to do with Johannesburg’s lawns, South Africa, or the Katse Dam. Before the dam was built, there was no infrastructure in these high mountain regions at all, and if local infrastructure development has been insufficient, it can only be blamed on the Lesotho government or corruption in the construction project, neither of which can be blamed on South African water consumers.

Kings reports that the Katse Dam is at its lowest level ever, at 52%. He neglects to mention that it was only completed in 1998, the year of the last El Niño, which makes this the first major El Niño drought since it began to fill. It is no surprise to find it at its lowest level ever.

Besides, although Kings eloquently describes the plight of Lesotho’s poor during the drought, most of that country’s agriculture is not irrigated, and with only one tap in the village, a full dam would make little difference to them.

In short, Johannesburgers should conserve water, but not because Lesotho is “sucked dry” and “in dire straits”. That is simplistic guilt-tripping on Kings’s part. Thinking that Lesotho would somehow benefit if South Africa reduced its water consumption is absurd. On the contrary: since South Africa buys the water, Lesotho is more likely to be harmed by lower South African consumption.

But snide rhetoric against rich consumers isn’t the only flaw in these articles. A far worse problem is that they neglect to mention the real cause of water scarcity in South Africa’s cities. It is far less a function of climate than it is of infrastructure.

Water shortages occurred in many South African towns long before the present drought arrived. While researching an article I wrote in 2013 for Good Governance Africa, which at the time was a unit of the SA Institute of Race Relations, I found that the reason for this isn’t lack of rain, but the physical distribution of natural resources, ageing infrastructure and management problems. To make matters worse, its surface water is often polluted, and not so much by industry as by agricultural run-off and overflow from inadequate sewage treatment facilities.

In that feature, you’ll find some revealing statistics. Mining, industrial and power generation together account for only 8% of South Africa’s water use. Residential and commercial users account for another 27%. The remaining 65% is used for irrigation and forestry. Cutting residential water use cannot make more than a small improvement in the country’s overall water situation.

Moreover, between 30% and 40% of all South Africa’s available water is lost between the source and the consumer, due to water theft and decrepit infrastructure. Fixing leaking pipes could save more water than all of Johannesburg uses, in Kings’s derisory words, to “water their gardens”.

Yes, if you live in Johannesburg and other big cities, you will have to cut your water consumption. You will be rationed, on pain of punishment, as is common with goods or services provided by government instead of the private sector. True, this will probably affect your lawn.

But South Africa’s water crisis long predated the current drought. Climate has little to do with the country’s water scarcity. Reducing your water consumption will not alleviate the plight of poor Lesotho peasants.

It is easy to guilt-trip the wealthy. Religions have been doing so for millennia. But if environmentalists funded by foreign NGOs really wanted to make a difference to the people of Africa, they would tackle the far more complex reasons for its shortages: inadequate infrastructure mismanaged by government. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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