Opinionista Jeff Rudin 21 June 2017

Droughts and floods – take an umbrella if it’s going to rain

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 22 May. This is why the City of Cape Town, having declared the city to be a disaster zone in March, introduced the highest of its four levels of water restrictions, as from 1 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 but are instead 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, the physics behind the climate change-droughts mean that long periods of no water will be followed by short periods of far too much water.

The good news is that we know – with unusual scientific certainty – the cause of climate change: fossil-fuel based greenhouse gases. We additionally know that most of these global warming 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 cheaper and technically viable 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:

Water Leaks

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 water supply.

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 – which is considerably lower than the national average – this still means a saving of a huge 80-million litres or so, if only the leaks were fixed. Putting this amount in perspective, 80-million litres is 13.33% of the 600 million litres that must be saved in terms of Level 4 restrictions.

Cape Town continues to talk about the leaks but, against the amount of water that could be saved, and given that the city has declared Cape Town to be a disaster area in order more easily to take emergency measures, it does little more than just continue talking.

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. As though saving 36.4-billion litres of water – or even just 80-million a day in Cape Town – is not enough, fixing the leaks would also create a large number of desperately needed jobs.

Rainwater harvesting (RWH)

It never rains but 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, super-abundance (even though 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, were obliged, by law, to collect and store rainwater off roofs. Apart from climate change that makes water increasingly scarce, South Africa is naturally a water-scarce country, with its annual rainfall being only half the global average. These two over-lapping realities make water all the more precious and hence all the more important for us to husband what little we have.

80% of South Africa’s approximately 10 million houses are formal dwellings. This means that, apart from all the other buildings in the country, some 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 sufficient demand to sustain a large growth in the local RWH market. And it means the creation of a large number of jobs.

Still more water can be saved, along with the creation of an even larger local RWH market and new jobs, by regulations making RWH an in principle requirement for all new buildings – and, then, enforcing the regulations.

It can safely be presumed that owners of most of the 8-million existing homes would 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 – both direct and indirect – 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.

Radical Economic Transformation

Radical changes to the economy are an essential part of what is a sufficient response to the normal scarcity of water, further aggravated by the climate change-droughts we know are going to recur with alarming frequency. These economic changes include:

  • The fastest possible replacing of coal as the primary energy source.

Eskom produces some 95% of South Africa’s electricity and uses coal to produce about 90% of its electricity. Water is an often unseen component of coal-produced electricity. Apart from the large amount of water used in the mining of coal, Eskom’s coal-fired power stations use 327-billion litres of fresh water, amounting to a staggering 10,000 litres of water per second. Comparing this amount against the 25 litres of water per day that the government says is sufficient to meet the basic water needs of each person is instructive. It shows that the water Eskom uses each day is the same as what the government says is sufficient to meet the water needs of 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. (Yes, this is the same Department facing allegation of large-scale corruption!)

Renewable energy is now considerably cheaper than coal. Moreover, there are no longer any technical reasons why it – with open cycle turbine backup when necessary – cannot replace coal within 20 or even less years. The government, however, chooses to privilege coal and nuclear. This is why it is seeking – via the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity (IRP 2016) – to place unexplained and arbitrary restrictions on the amount of renewable energy to be provided by 2040.

  • Agriculture: For feeding all South Africans first.

It has long been known that 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 large-scale commercial agriculture (along with a degree of inertia).

Radical – to say nothing of rational – economic development would address this uneconomic use of precious water. This is all the more the case when one confronts the myth that agriculture exists to provide the nation with food. What is grown and the amount that is grown or produced is entirely determined by the agri-business imperative to maximise profit. This is why whole agricultural sectors – wine, for example – is primarily export oriented. This is why the unexpectedly large maize crop this year is an economic headache, with falling prices in the (low-waged) domestic market having to be offset by searching for new export markets, lest 3.5-million tonnes be wasted, according to a Business Day article on the subject. 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 – besides creating a very large number of new jobs.

  • Manufacturing

Manufacturing actually designed to meet people’s urgent needs, rather than maximise profits, would have the same beneficial effects on saving water as a rational agriculture. Water is integral to the manufacturing process of most products, beginning with 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, in terms of any rational criteria other than maximising profit by any means. The fact that more water is used making the bottles than filling them invites us to look far more critically – radically – at who decides what to make, in what quantities and where.

A brief pause to reflect on radical regression rather than transformation. Two aspects of Cape Town’s Level 4 response to the drought are noteworthy: its maximum daily water use that the city described as being “non-negotiable because it is supposedly so low and its new water tariffs.

The city has set a maximum of 100 litres per person per day. The City has no way of enforcing this limit. However, the most striking aspect of this maximum is that it is more than two-and-a-quarter times the amount the city currently considers to be sufficient to meet the Constitution’s guarantee of both basic water and dignity to everyone. In other words, what is presented as a dire emergency hardship imposed on the residents of Cape Town by the worst drought in over 100 years would be heaven for the majority of Cape Town’s population, for whom affording to pay for 100 litres is a real and persistent hardship.

The ability to pay for water is, indeed, the city’s means of ensuring that most people don’t get anywhere near the 100 litre maximum. Its new tariff structure appears to be designed to penalise the privileged by making water increasing expensive the more one uses it. Thus, the worst offenders – households using more than 50,000 litres of water a month – will have to pay R302.24 for each additional litre, from 1 July. But it is the poor – the vast majority – who, without any publicity – will bear the brunt of paying for the drought.

To begin with, there is no mention of the 6,000 litres free water supplied to everyone since 2000, not even for those officially deemed to be “indigent”. From July 1st, everyone will evidently have to pay R4.56 a litre for the first 6,000 litres.

Arguably even more punitive than this is the cost of the next tariff band (6001 to 10,500 litres). At R17,75 a litre, this increase is more than three times as fast as any of the other higher tariff bands since 2009/10.

Once again, no matter the crisis, it is the poor who pay.

This article began with a quote from Sipho Kings from 2 June. He begins his 14 June article, “Fire & Floods: the new normal”:

The mother of all storms. The worst drought in a century. More intense fires than any in living memory. The hottest years on record. This is the new normal.”

None of this comes as any surprise to the government’s principal plan for dealing with climate change, the National Adaptation Strategy. Yet, although it acknowledges, managing our ecological, social and economic resources and capital responsibly for current and future generations, there is not even a hint of a critique of an economic system symbolised by bottled water – or cell phones that are obsolescent virtually from the moment they are made. This is not surprising given that the Adaptation Strategy says not a word about something as unchallenging as the need to fix water leaks. It does at least mention RWH but does so in the weakest of terms, such as nothing more than creating “awareness campaigns” or the “improved roll-out of rainwater harvesting strategies”!

What the National Adaptation Strategy makes plain is that it is far from sufficient to know that droughts, followed by floods and fires, are early harbingers of climate change in a South Africa that, even in the best of times, struggles to find water.

Nonetheless, more than enough is known to see the urgent need to go where the Adaptation Strategy fears to tread. Whether or not this exploration leads to a recognition of systems change being the required response to climate change is a matter of personal judgement.

What no one should be left in any doubt about is the dire necessity of measures to counter climate change.

When the weather forecast is rain, take a raincoat. DM

This is an extended version of an article written for Amandla

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