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How panic can lead to big change: Five steps to get us out of a crisis

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Christine Colvin, WWF freshwater senior manager.

A freshwater specialist’s reflections on recent lessons learnt and how these can help us dig ourselves out of an interconnected planetary crisis.

You’d be forgiven for missing that 18-24 March 2019 is National Water Week. You’d also be forgiven for not caring as we lurch from crisis to crisis: The stage four load shedding outdoing February’s R1.5-trillion lost to the fiscus, grandstanding 2018’s fears of having to queue for water on Day Zero.

In this state of crisis fatigue, we wonder what can poke us out from under our carapace of coping. A final splash to the senses from Cyclone Idai as the last lights go out and thousands are displaced by its floodwaters?

What could give us the energy (metabolic, not electrical) to drag a scuffed foot forward towards a future that our children are now taking a stand against?

Today’s #FridaysforFuture school strike will occur on World Water Day (22 March). Last Friday we saw 1.6 million school children in 125 countries demand that we act now to stop climate change. Projections by our own scientists are that the current trajectory towards a 3ºC rise in global temperatures leaves South Africa cooking in the shade at more than 4ºC hotter.

Who’ll be competing for a job in IT when our food system has collapsed and the long-predicted climate apocalypse is finally upon us?

The essential pre-qualification to live on a cooked planet is a parental generation that was not capable of changing in time — despite all the warnings of climate change and the ready technology to produce renewable energy. It was in 2015 that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

We are the first generation that can end poverty, the last that can end climate change.”

We have done neither.

During National Water Week you’d also be forgiven for feeling that anything to do with energy or water security is an excruciating embarrassment and we’d best not draw attention to our crumbling infrastructure (sewage works), mega-project overruns (Medupi power) and pollution-choked dams (Hartebeestpoort).

So it was unexpected to hear the Minister for Water and Sanitation Gugile Nkwinti start the week with the disarmingly honest acknowledgement:

Our model is flawed and completely inadequate to serve the democratic needs of South Africa. We need to think differently. We need to act differently.”

And this under the gaze of the schoolgirl #FridaysforFuture activist Greta Thunberg, on the slide of a presentation given before the minister’s talk, with the headline: “I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic and act as if your house is on fire.”

Well, the minister certainly didn’t try to placate her with empty hopes.

Cyclone Idai has reminded us again how interconnected our water, energy and food systems are.

This time in 2018, Cape Town had level 6b water restrictions — it seemed as if we were just making the levels up. Now we’re hearing talk about stages five and six for load shedding. And we know that would spell chaos for our water system as pump stations fail and Gauteng runs the risk of being left high and dry. Under load shedding we know we can light a candle and ride it out. Water has no substitute, and we cannot live without it.

At least we are pretty good at panicking. In 2018, Capetonians pulled out the red carpet for panic as we sank towards #DayZero. And it seems a vital dose of panic was necessary before we changed. So Greta is on the right track.

Panic helped us to shift more quickly through our five steps of grieving for no rain:

  1. denial (2016— 2017),
  2. anger (early 2018 when the blame-game between every faction and sphere of government peaked),
  3. bargaining (in the queue for spring/bottled water, rainwater tanks, drillers),
  4. depression (why didn’t we/they/you see this coming?),
  5. to acceptance (okay— let’s start thinking about this differently and make a plan).

Out of that confusion, Cape Town did make a plan. We now wear our badge of honour with pride — the first city to have halved its water consumption without having the taps turned off. And what is amazing is that, although the levels in our dams rebounded after this winter’s rains, our consumption of bulk water didn’t return to the (old) normal. It’s still hovering around half of what it was before the drought. A quiet revolution took place in the city, one in which almost every household played its part, willingly and unwillingly.

The City of Cape Town’s engineers did their part by throttling down pressure in our water pipes and speeding up the response time to fix any burst pipes. Punitive tariffs kept in check those who could not be persuaded to save water for the common good. Saving “what we had” was the order of the day. When our top engineers were advising that you cannot “build your way out of drought”, it was easier for the mayor to stand her ground against an unnecessary big spend on desalination as water revenues fell.

Those who could afford to, drought-proofed their homes. Every braai-time conversation was around questions like who still had rain-tanks in stock, did you need a sump collector on your drain-pipe, how to determine the iron levels in your groundwater, and whether you could store greywater for more than 24 hours. Facebook groups flourished and people did things differently.

In Cape Town, we are all water managers. In a matter of months, four million people shifted an entire city into a drought-ready state. We needed a good dose of panic to get the job started, but we finished it with the understanding that we all had to get on and do it ourselves. Not in isolation — we needed good information, basic but appropriate technology and we learnt quickly from one another.

So I don’t want to offer hope, when panic is the order of the day.

But, please, let’s not waste another crisis. And let’s not re-invest in an old model that is flawed and inadequate. We know the drill: Panic, blame, despair, baby steps, big change. Our crumbling energy sector has a new generation of renewable technologies waiting in the wings. And the next generation is demanding that we use it. Now.

The 2019 Water Week theme is “Leaving No One Behind”. Right now, we are in danger of not just losing a few stragglers, but leaving behind a planet that is uninhabitable. DM

Christine Colvin, WWF freshwater senior manager.

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