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South Africa’s escalating water crises of drought and floods are harbingers of climate crisis

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Akhona Xotyeni has an MPhil in Environmental Management from Stellenbosch University; she was one of the 2020 Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans; and is a Climate and Just Transition Youth Ambassador at the Royal Danish Embassy in South Africa.

South Africa needs to move away from siloed and passive approaches toward water management and adopt more proactive, robust and integrated approaches.

A popular phrase in a time of crisis is “it never rains, but it pours”. This is usually a figurative expression referring to the overwhelming sense of chaos at a given time. South Africa is a country which has not been spared from economic, social and political chaos over the past few months, and the phrase has now taken on a literal meaning.

The usually dry South Africa has not been exempted from the abnormal rainfall countries like Germany, Belgium, Mozambique and many others have been receiving in the last year.

With the ice packs at the poles melting and weather patterns across the globe becoming more extreme and unpredictable, more and more countries (not only in the northern hemisphere) are experiencing catastrophic events such as flash floods and cyclones. And in South Africa, scientists have predicted that the east of the country will become wetter while the western parts will be drier.

It has become increasingly evident that South Africa can no longer be characterised by its climate of the past: dry and semi-arid, with the potential to run out of water. The country now also needs to incorporate flood and stormwater management and infrastructure into the already intense need for securing and conserving water resources.

We have, as humanity, continued to show that we have got our whole interaction with the natural environment so wrong. We are so caught up with systems of predictability and control that no matter how much the science warns us about the effects of the climate crisis, we still opt for doubt — seeing has always been believing, I guess.

We choose to not maintain and service infrastructure or make use of adequate town and urban planning. We choose not to intersectionally integrate climate-related policies and plans across all departments and disciplines. We choose not to be proactive because the phrase “prevention is better than cure” only applies to medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor. And who are we to apply intrinsic rather than instrumental value to finite natural resources that we believe we were created to exploit and conquer?

In the past two years, I have heard presidents, ministers, ambassadors, UN officials and many others call the Covid-19 pandemic a dress rehearsal for the much more catastrophic and devastating climate crisis. However, in that time, I have seen few of our leaders bringing climate-related conversations to mainstream debates. Rather, we keep seeing the conversation being used as a tug-of-war weapon between big corporates, climate activists and public officials, while the most vulnerable people who are experiencing the harsh effects of the climate crisis find themselves nowhere near the main arena.

I am not the first to call on all living humans to take decisive and just actions, and I know I will not be the last. However, when all you have is a laptop and electricity (sometimes) to make a difference, you will opt to move the needle forward however you can. Right now, even the smallest bit of difference and smallest contribution matters.

With South Africa being strategically placed to receive climate finance and technical assistance, it is about time as a country that we prioritise elevating the climate security agenda to mainstream conversations alongside economic and social relief. South Africa needs to ensure that even though the energy transition is of major priority, other crises such as water also receive a fair share of finance, research and infrastructure.

The country needs to move away from siloed and passive approaches toward water management, to more proactive, robust and integrated approaches.

On a recent once-in-a-lifetime trip to Denmark, I looked behind the veil of bilateral water diplomacy. Even with the limited experience I had during that week, I have to agree with the many others who have already said the climate crisis is a global agenda. As a country, we cannot do it on our own, we need to make use of the assistance offered by other countries such as Denmark.

However, during all these exchanges, we also still need to stay grounded in our own values as well as our own developmental agenda. It is no secret that for years, Western standards were used to shape developmental agendas as well as the uses of natural resources.

However, if one looks closely at history, while the West was championing vast urbanisation and technological advances, many African countries Africa still prioritised sustainability and conservation — the core values of the just transition.

So this year at COP27, we as Africans will once again get the opportunity to lead the pack from the front, hopefully, to paraphrase the words of our late former President Nelson Mandela, “we will not lose, rather we will win or continue to learn”. DM

 

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  • Our water crisis is at this point partially caused by the ANC, their corruption and inability to run anything without destroying it. That a matter of fact now and should be part of this article.

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