Gaius Publius: More on the Cape Town, South Africa, Water Crisis

Yves here. As William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Cape Town’s water crisis is a prime example. We’ve been warning for years that potable water is humanity’s most scarce natural resource. Some Australian physicists tasked to modeling Australia’s use and import/export of materials estimated that potable water would become a scare resource globally first, by around 2050. And I suspect their estimates of the pace of climate change were less dire than what has come to pass so far.

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

What water rationing looks like, minus the anger (source).

Earlier we wrote about the extreme water shortage in Cape Town, South Africa. Things are so dry there, and the dams so low, that it looked like the city would have to shut off their water taps by April 29, which they’re calling “Day Zero.” Seriously.

This piece updates that information and adds a couple of points.

First, the update, via the (Rupert Murdoch-owned) National Geographic:

How Cape Town Is Coping With Its Worst Drought on Record

Editor’s Note: On Monday, February 5, Cape Town officials announced that the city had gotten “a slight reprieve” and that “Day Zero” had been pushed back to May 11. The reason: Fruit growers and other agricultural operations in the region have used up their annual water allocation, making more water available for the city. “There has not been any significant decline in urban usage,” deputy mayor Ian Neilson stressed in a statement. With a heat wave forecast to increase evaporation from reservoirs, he said, Capetonians must reduce consumption “to prevent the remaining water supplies running out before the arrival of winter rains.”

A few things to note about this:

  • The “growers … have used up their annual allotment.” This means that the agricultural industry there is SOL until the rains start. Translate that to a California context.
  • Urban usage has not declined. The obvious reason is that it’s harder to enforce urban water rationing than agricultural rationing. There seems to be an “I’ll get mine if I can” attitude among city dwellers. The social tensions have started.
  • Reservoirs are dangerously low due to the drought, and since it’s their summer (while we have winter) the heat is causing water evaporation. As of the most recent reports, reservoirs are at just 30% capacity or less, with the last 10% unusable.
  • The end of the crisis will come with the “arrival of winter rains,” hopefully soon after Day Zero. That means around June or so, since their winter is our summer.

More from the report, first on how water rationing will work after the taps are — yes, literally — turned off by the city: “By late spring, four million people in the city of Cape Town—one of Africa’s most affluent metropolises—may have to stand in line surrounded by armed guards to collect rations of the region’s most precious commodity: drinking water.”

Stand in line surrounded by armed guards to get your daily ration of water? Yes, that’s what water rationing in a city-wide emergency looks like.

The city is prepping 200 emergency water stations outside groceries and other gathering spots. Each would have to serve almost 20,000 residents. Cape Town officials are making plans to store emergency water at military installations, and say using taps to fill pools, water gardens, or wash cars is now illegal. Just this week, authorities stepped up water-theft patrols at natural springs where fights broke out, according to local press reports. They’re being asked to crack down on “unscrupulous traders” who have driven up the price of bottled water.

The amount of rationing will be extreme. In early January, the city asked residents (note, asked) to use just 50 liters of water per day (which, the article notes, is less than one-sixth of what the average American uses). Day Zero will make those restrictions mandatory and reduce the quota to 25 liters per day (“less than typically used in four minutes of showering”).

About those social tensions, city officials are also worried about it. Writes Helen Zille, former Cape Town mayor and premier of South Africa’s Western Cape province, “The question that dominates my waking hours now is: When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?”

The National Geographic article makes that point again: “For months, citizens have been urged to consume less, but more than half of residents ignored those volunteer restrictions.”

Says David Olivier, a research fellow at the Global Change Institute at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, “The fundamental problem is the kind of lifestyle we’re living. There’s almost a sense of entitlement that we have a right to consume as much as we want. The attitude and reaction of most posts on social media is indignation. It’s ‘we pay our taxes’ and therefore we should be as comfortable as possible.”

“A sense of entitlement.” Sound familiar?

Finally, many major cities are in roughly the same shape as Cape Town, are staring down the barrel of the same gun (emphasis added):

[M]any of the 21 million residents of Mexico City only have running water part of the day, while one in five get just a few hours from their taps a week. Several major cities in India don’t have enough. Water managers in Melbourne, Australia, reported last summer that they could run out of water in little more than a decade. Jakarta is running so dry that the city is sinking faster than seas are rising, as residents suck up groundwater from below the surface.

Much like Cape Town’s fiasco, reservoirs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, dropped so low in 2015 that pipes drew in mud, emergency water trucks were looted, and the flow of water to taps in many homes was cut to just a few hours twice a week. Only last-minute rains prevented Brazilian authorities from having to close taps completely.

“Sao Paulo was down to less than 20 days of water supply,” says Betsy Otto, director of the global water program at the World Resources Institute. “What we’re starting to see are the confluence of a lot of factors that might be underappreciated, ignored, or changing. Brought together, though, they create the perfect storm.”

Is it an emergency yet? Is this impetus enough? Is it time yet for people to take matters into their own hands and act?

Tick tick tick says the world-historical clock on the wall. Tick tick tick.

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70 comments

  1. pat b

    To me the real crisis is loss of fire protection.
    What happens without working hydrants or sprinklers or fire engines?

    One fire during windy weather means massive losses.

    Reply
  2. kimyo

    capetown’s population has doubled twice since 1960, from 800,000 to 1.6 million in 1980, hitting 3.2 million sometime around 2005. it’s 3.7 million today.

    an article that ignores this issue is kind of incomplete, n’est-ce pas? not a single mention of what is probably the most significant part of the equation. one doubts we’d be hearing about this story if capetown’s population remained stable at 800,000.

    there’s more to it than climate change.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      I wouldn’t be too hard on them as Cape Town would not be the first city in the world to suffer from urban overpopulation after all. They knew even in the early 90s about this problem coming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Town_water_crisis) but in spite of more capacity coming online, it was never enough and the present drought has forced things to a head. Look at how California fared during the last drought. Could San Francisco or Los Angeles say back then, ‘Sorry, too many people for the water supply so no new people here. You’ll have to go back’.
      It took a drought here in Oz during the 90s to make having rainwater tanks on houses acceptable (and even mandatory in some regions) though when I told a Californian relative about them last year, she was unfamiliar with them. Could be just the area she lived in though. I am afraid that Cape Town’s experience may be a portend of things to come for the rest of the world. This will require great changes in how we treat water and having a rainwater tank on your house (if you have one) will be the minimum thing that you will have to get used to. Otherwise be prepared to stand in a long queue with your neighbours and a 25 liter (about 6.6 US gallons) water can by your side – and don’t forget that water is heavy so you may need a trolley.

      Reply
    2. Koldmilk

      Please keep inequality in mind, resource consumption in not evenly distributed and blaming the “excess” 2.9 million is a path that history teaches us leads to vile deeds. Many Cape Town residents do not have a lawn to water or a pool to fill or a car to wash.

      Reply
      1. rd

        This can actually result in “hardened” demand that can make a crisis worse. When there is lots of soft demand, such as lawn watering, then conservation efforts are pretty easy.

        However, if the soft demand is not a large percentage, then the hardened demand is for pretty essential uses such as drinking water, toilets, showers etc. That is much harder to conserve without significantly impacting quality of life.

        Many cities have been developing water conservation measures that are effectively hardening demand but then are still growing their populations. So a lower but hardened water demand per capita times a growing population = increased base water usage that is difficult to provide in a drought. If you want to maintain that population, you need to have alternate means of providing water, such as desalinization, to avoid reliance on water from the sky. The water is available – it is just going to be more expensive, use more energy, and require more engineering and planning.

        Reply
    3. vlade

      Indeed. It’s a similar case with the water report quoted in article re Melbourne (where the 10 years horizon is the worst possible, but hey..), where the population increased rapidly, and the worst possible case assumes significant population growth int he time (doubling IIRC).

      Reply
  3. jgordon

    This post seems a bit incomplete. It might bear on the situation in South Africa that over the past 20 years the state has transitioned from a first world state with pristine infrastructure, excellent public saftety, and high living standards into a deteriorating crime-ridden disaster area. Imagine going from suburban Austin to inner city Chicago in just 20 years and you’ll have an idea of how drastic and rapid the change has been. I have met people who fled from South Africa seeking refuge in China and the stories they told about it are hair raising.

    Anyway, the population in charge of SA no longer has the ability to preserve resources and plan for the future which will of course have disastrous long term (now medium to short term) consequences. Rather than looking for a solution (there is no solution), just consider this an object lesson for what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t change course. We could avert a similar crisis in our own countries by only allowing net taxpayers to vote for example. That would solve so many of society’s existential ills. So many.

    Reply
    1. McKillop

      Please explain how allowing net taxpayers to vote would solve the problem of drought, overpopulation and entitlement. Or any of the many.

      Reply
      1. jgordon

        You were misinformed about South Africa because it does not serve the political interests of those in power (including the global left) to expose what is going on in South Africa. In short, it’s a horror show there and any minorities who can flee from South Africa are fleeing.

        But in terms of water, SA historically got its water via desalinization, ie a business/state enterprise, and the sudden lack of water today can be attributed mostly to awful government policies motivated by racial animus rather than environmental changes. This is completely a self inflicted disaster for them.

        Reply
        1. Afrikaan

          “SA historically got its water via desalinization, i.e. a business/state enterprise”

          Where did this ‘fact’ come from?

          Reply
      1. jgordon

        Apparently I can not say certain words, however accurate. So I will say that those currently in charge of South Africa really, really do not like people from other races and they go out of their way to abuse them up to and include property expropriation, employment discrimination, and targeted crime (all based on race). That is one of the ways I’d describe them.

        Reply
    2. PlutoniumKun

      If you think only letting net taxpayers vote solves anything you should read some histories of 19th Century municipalities.

      Reply
      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Gotcha, only allow those who use the most resources (“net taxpayers,” i. e. the affluent) to decide how the resources shall be used and distributed.

        That’ll cure the illin’.

        Reply
      2. vlade

        I have a better idea. How about we weight the vote by the net tax payments? That would give the 0.01% incentive to pay at least some tax – the cash they spend on moving the political process now, and it would be at least a more transparent..

        Reply
      3. jgordon

        You can’t run a sustainable system wherein those who are receiving free largess from that system also get a say in how its run. That’ll only works for a little while, until it doesn’t, like in Venezuela today.

        Reply
        1. pretzelattack

          so bankers and people who work for fossil fuel companies and military contractors should not be allowed to vote in the u.s.

          Reply
        2. Carolinian

          Wow. Taking your point of view to the logical extreme why not just get rid of the “useless eaters” altogether?

          And I wonder if those undoubtedly taxpaying growers who are using up so much of the water are “of the left.” I suspect not.

          Reply
        3. James T. Cricket

          Quite clearly you are suggesting that what should happen is this:
          1. Black Africans in South Africa, who recently received the franchise should now be disenfranchised, since with incomes that are too low to pay any or much tax.
          2. The taxpayers, the affluent, a.k.a. the white folk in South Africa should be the only ones with the vote.
          3. The majority in South Africa, the poor black people, should have no votes.
          4. The minority in South Africa, a.k.a. the white people, shall have all the votes.
          5. The minority in South Africa shall make all the decisions in South Africa. This will create a fair and sustainable system for all. Only a strong police force, military, and the occasional massacre of darkies will be necessary to keep the powerless and these arrangements, that you favour, in place.

          You do not give a single reason as to how your suggestion will create a sustainable system, but in any case, it shall be a return to Apartheid, but with a different strategy, a different name.

          Like I might say: Fudge. You! Oh, what a terrific curmudgeon you are. This has the same effect yet uses different words, since a different strategy is required to get the point across here than will be necessary with other company. Yet the message is the same.

          So hands up all those who think everything about what he says is NOT an idiotic way forward on any issue?

          Reply
        4. redleg

          So under your proposed system, children have no rights?
          Soldiers and civil servants have no rights, since they live off the “free largess of that system”?

          Personally, I will gleefully pay for some people to remain out of the workforce. I don’t want to manage them, work with them as peers, or deal with them as a customer or client.

          Reply
    3. Thuto

      Jgordon, I write from South Africa, Cape Town specifically. What is certain is that your comment is “hair raising” propaganda largely fed to you by those who “fled” SA after being knocked off their perch atop the food chain here in SA (read those for whom apartheid delivered “high living standards and excellent public safety” even as they or their white brethren foisted upon the majority black population unspeakable and unremitting acts of brutality), what is also certain is that you’ve swallowed their propaganda line, hook and sinker. Perhaps the only uncertainty is where you’re delivering your support for those nostalgic for the “good old days when SA used to work” (work for who they never ask) from?? Or are you perhaps one of those who “fled”? Perhaps you could also enlighten the community here at NC about how those previous ruling elites who presided over the “first world state” you so fondly reminisce about work tooth and nail behind the scenes to undermine any efforts to unbalance the status quo (the ineptitude of those in charge notwithstanding). Yes we have our problems as a country (which country doesn’t) but If you’re going to comment on SA, can it at least be informed commentary and not acting as an echo chamber for the nostalgia of those hankering after the days of apartheid. As Yves would say, better trolls please

      Reply
      1. Heraclitus

        Thuto, I have never traveled to Africa, and only know what I read online, which perhaps is propaganda. Most South Africans I’ve met were Anglo emigres, though I knew one black South African student–Xhosa, I think–some years ago. My sense from what I’ve read is that the level of violence is high, but was much higher in the ’90s. The difference is that it may be more racially tinged today. This is bad for the country. You can certainly explain it as a response to the evils of Apartheid, and I would agree, but having someone to blame doesn’t keep the water taps flowing, and South Africa is losing skilled workers of all races. If the world comes to see the plight of white South Africans as they themselves see it, which is not impossible, then emigration could become much easier, and a trickle (and it’s been more than a trickle) could turn into a flood.

        Reply
        1. Thuto

          James, not playing the blame game here, merely providing a counter narrative to the one people (including yourself) often get from those who’ve left. And as you rightly point out, almost a 100% of those are white south africans (I move in the circles of highly skilled, highly educated black people and have done for at least the last 15 years since I left university and have never heard so much as an utterance of a desire to emigrate from any of them, to say nothing of knowing any black person that actually left). Black people that do go overseas are often seconded to other positions within e.g. a global consulting firm or are in the creative industries that have overseas hubs like film etc, but even those always come back home. The reality James is that since 2010 almost half a million SA expats have come back home and as of last year there are more coming back than leaving (and yes a very large majority of whom are white) so the brain drain narrative is one that’s oversold. The other reality is that white people leave because the tectonic shift from apartheid to a democratic state we have today hasn’t left their previous lifestyles untouched, this is an undeniable fact. Most of them see the unbalancing.of the status quo as an existential threat and choose instead to leave. Is there a crime problem? Yes, and the majority of its victims are black by the way, but you’ll never hear this from those who go around the world saying how bad things have gotten since 94. I’m glad you point out much of what you know is what you read online, and i’m here to tell you that much of it distorts and overplays the problems we have in the country (yes we have problems like any country) to drive an agenda so my humble advice would be to take some of it with a pinch of salt and seek out a counterbalancing narrative where possible, and make up your mind from there.

          Reply
    4. Jim Haygood

      ‘over the past 20 years the state has transitioned from … excellent public safety … into a deteriorating crime-ridden disaster area’

      From having spent several weeks there on two trips in the early 1980s, I can assure you that high crime was an omnipresent concern in South Africa even during the waning days of the Nat party apartheid regime.

      Some acquaintances in Durban asked me whether I was packing a pistol on my travels, and seemed astonished that a tourist would venture out unarmed there.

      Check out Athol Fugard’s 1980 novel Tsotsi for an extended dramatic exposition on the theme.

      Reply
    5. Expat

      AT the risk of provoking Yves once again, I cannot refrain from responding to you in harsh terms. Your revisionist, racist post is distasteful and untruthful. I see that you have carefully avoided saying “White South Africa” vs. “Black South Africa” but you might as well have.

      South Africa was a wonderful place to live, full of technological delights and with a booming economy. The education system was top notch as were public services. The restaurants and bars of Capetown were wonderful (they still are, by the way). It was safe to walk the streets, etc.

      Of course, all that applied only if you were white. If you were black, colored or mixed, you lived in squalor with no running water, no electricity, no public transportation and no entertainment. You received the barest of educations designed to make you suitable to swing a pick in a diamond mine or use a vacuum cleaner in a white man’s living room.

      You might consider what happens not when a bunch of “them” take over a pristine country but what happens when you finally give freedom to over 90% of the population. Your amazing first world country was designed for a mere 7-8% of the people. Your wonderful whites built roads, sewers, and power plants just for themselves. How dare these blacks suddenly start using all these things and ruin the party.

      Your post is appalling.

      Reply
      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Apologies. I’ve been busy all day and didn’t see that he managed to evade moderation trip wires to make one of his comments above. He had written an impermissible one that the system did catch but he rewrote it to be sufficiently coded to slip through our screens. He’s being blacklisted.

        Reply
    6. Yves Smith Post author

      This is utter bullshit. I visited South Africa, in fact EXACTLY 21 years ago. The idea that it was a first world country then is utter fabrication. It barely made the cut for American Express as high enough on the third world end of thing to interest them as a market. I saw its airport and the better parts of JoBurg. It did not have “pristine infrastructure.” It was at a lower standard than Caracas and Lisbon (coming out of decades of Communist rule and therefore charming but a bit tatty). The only place it was better than was Zagreb, a real dump.

      And Haygood is 100% correct re crime. I had a male buddy who had been doing business there for years as of the late 1990s, the sort of over 6″ guy who stupidly got into barfights on occasion. He told he in no uncertain terms never to take a taxi there, even from the airport, always to book, a car with an established car service and to find one through the hotel, that he always did that because kidnappings were rampant. There were also certain neighborhoods in Joburg you simply did not visit for safety reasons.

      Reply
      1. Expat

        Oh, sure. Here I am being a model of restraint and decorum (fearing your wrath) and you wade into the fight with “utter bullshit”, a phrase lying just a bit under the tips of my typing fingers.
        So, let me follow up with, “What she said!”

        Reply
      2. Thuto

        This is a milestone for me ever since becoming a regular member of the commentariat here at NC, I usually agree with a lot of what you say, but today, at the risk of sounding like i’m mouthing off a reflexive defense of SA, i’m going to have to differ with you on this one. I’ve had the pleasure of travelling extensively through the “first world” and I can’t say i’ve seen infrastructure in Paris or London or Dubai or New York that is streets ahead of what cities like Joburg and Cape Town have on offer (the only exception being public transport networks). In addition, the Joburg, Cape Town and Durban airports are now on par (and in some respects superior) due to modernizations for the 2010 soccer world cup with anything the world has to offer. Re: Amex, My childhood friend headed up American Express at their local partner bank Nedbank for seven years until a year go, and Amex is doing quite well in the market but hasn’t taken off merely because its benefits package really isn’t superior to anything the local banks offer in partnership with Visa and MasterCard (I myself have been one of those that didn’t see the benefit in switching over). Re: crime rates that you and Jim Haygood allude to, as in any country with crippling ineqaualit, yes crime is a problem , with some areas being more problematic than others (same way I wouldn’t be caught dead wandering alone in certain sections of any major city or country) but kidnappings rampant?? Not a chance, i’m sorry but your friend misled you, he must have been referring to Rio or Sao Paolo. I’d also caution you and other readers here that a lot of the crime statistics passed on to international media organizations are overblown (there’s a vested interest in making things appear worse than they really are, it reinforces the narrative that things have slid downhill since the whites vacated the seats of power). I’ve seen people shed tears of relief for coming here in spite of advice to the contrary, and seeing for themselves that with common sense precautions one would take visiting any country, South Africa is not a place that it’s often painted to be, not even half of the what is often portrayed reflects the reality on the ground. 21 years is a long time (and 30+ years for Jim Haygood) and i’d wager that if either of you ever visit here, you’d quickly reassess your perceptions of SA.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I never said Nedbank, which I visited on that trip, wasn’t making money with Amex in SA. I made a relative statement, that it was one of the bottom of the markets in terms of demographics (average incomes and income distribution) that American Express deemed viable for its franchise business, which was to offer local currency cards. Having said that, Amex was still picking the top of what was then called third world, now emerging markets.

          And this as as I said was 21 years ago, so I can’t comment since then. However, the other countries in this group were Ireland, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Greece, Israel, Portugal, South Korea, and Croatia. Croatia was a bit of a historical accident, but turned out to be not such a crazy bet as the Mediterranean coastal area was getting a lot of tourists and related investment.

          As of then, Joburg had the least spiffy airport, roads, signage and what I could see of urban amenities of any place I visited, save Zagreb, as I remarked.

          I agree that the US has gone quite to pot. Kennedy is an utter disgrace. Atlanta is probably now our best international airport, and Dallas is not too bad, but how many people from abroad enter through them? Answer: not all that many. But we were talking 20 years ago, and conditions in the US weren’t as bad (save Kennedy even then not being kept up all that well) as now.

          Reply
        2. Yves Smith Post author

          I am sorry to have offended you earlier, but my friend traveled extensively and was not the type to be all that concerned about physical risk. He’s had people pull guns on him more than once in the US, for instance.

          The Amex people who were organizing my visit separately said I absolutely must not take a cab from the airport. Kidnappings by taxi drivers were apparently not at all unheard of. The driver who picked me up also in taking me to a hotel volunteered that we were skirting a dangerous area, one he would not drive through. I didn’t get warnings like that in any other country I have ever visited.

          I also recall being told that Joburg wan’t terribly safe, but my impression is that Cape Town and much of the rest of South Africa were back then.

          Reply
  4. Jer Bear

    For starters, the world does not have a water crisis, or even a population crisis … not yet, at any rate. LIke all shortages throughout history, it is manmade by the people at the top at the expense of everyone else. There are no notable exceptions to this rule.

    Desalinization can be done on a massive scale with the energy the world now expends on many other things that are obviously not so important. But of course it isn’t because it isn’t profitable to the people on top. Media reporting on this “crisis” isn’t helping anyone but the people on top.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Desalination takes energy. And you have the problem of the disposal of the salt, which is not trivial.

      See these stories for starters as to why it is not a viable remedy for the water crisis and could even make things worse:

      https://www.reuters.com/article/us-desalination/desalination-no-answer-to-water-crisis-wwf-idUSL1834918020070619

      http://www.xeroscleaning.com/blog/why-desalination-is-not-the-answer-to-the-worlds-water-issues

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/09/07/why-desalination-isnt-the-answer-to-the-worlds-water-problems/#5bcbd8724737

      Reply
      1. Irrational

        Thanks for the links, Yves.
        I often wondered what would happen if everyone starts dumping the brine into the ocean.
        Desal plants also require fairly clean water at the intake to operate properly.
        The real problem as some allude to in this thread is that while consumers are charged (but maybe not enough), agriculture – the much more profligate user – is charged even less or nothing for water and so have no incentive to become more efficient through e.g. choice of crops or drip irrigation.

        Reply
      2. Jer Bear

        It’s a pipe dream because world powers do not want to put out the energy to do it. But consider this:

        The world currently uses 4,000,000,000,000 cubic meters of water a year.
        The oceans contain 1,332,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters of water.

        Do the maths. Using existing technologies and energy sources, the powers of the earth can convert enough seawater to softwater to turn every desert coastal area into lush farmland and provide more than enough water to 10 billion people or more, solving all food and water problems forever, regardless of climate change, and “borrow” only the tiniest fraction of the worlds water supply in the process. We only lack the will to do so and there is no short-term financial incentive.

        Water is a zero-sum game. Every gallon used is eventually returned to the oceans. Energy is a zero-sum game as well.

        Only simple greed is preventing this dream from becoming a reality. Every other consideration is insignificant.

        Do the maths.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Don’t cop a ‘tude that you know something when you’ve demonstrated you don’t. You didn’t do the basics of reading any of the material I provided. The energy requirements make this a non-starter.

          And on top of that, you handwave away the non-trivial issue, even if this weren’t unduly costly from an energy perspective, how pray tell do we get this water from the coasts to inland? What do you propose? Trucking it? Pipelines? How long do pipelines take, how do you get the approvals, what are the additional energy and materials costs of all that building?

          This isn’t analysis. It’s treating a technology as if it were a magic bullet.

          Reply
          1. Expat

            This ranks up there with “we will never run out of natural gas because of all the frozen methane in the asteroid belt”…or even better, the humongous clouds of methane in interstellar space!

            Reply
    2. XXYY

      Desalination could conceivably supply the drinking water needs of the population, but this is only a small percentage of the water needed by society. Eg, here in California, only 8% of the state’s water is used by the population. 85% is used by the agricultural industry (the rest is used by other industry). I don’t have numbers for elsewhere but CA is a high population state.

      There is no way to desalinate enough water to grow food for a large population, or for that matter to transport it from the coast to agricultural regions. IMO this is a pipe dream and/or a boondoggle.

      Reply
  5. Koldmilk

    One of the reasons for the crisis may be that water was underpriced.

    Drawing from my own experience, a two-person middle class household in Cape Town monthly spend is R3000 on medical, car and household insurance, R1000 on Internet and cellphone, R600 on satellite TV subscription, R1000 on electricity, R2000 on municipal taxes, R300 on sewage and refuse removal, and just R100 on water.

    The most essential item on that list is the cheapest!

    Given that we knew back in 2009 that this crisis was coming there was no attempt to increase water fees to encourage conservation and to fund measures to increase supply.

    One example of where higher water rates would have helped: encourage homeowners to install a rainwater harvesting system (approx cost R6000). Once enough residents do that it helps reduce demand on the reservoirs and gives them a better chance to refill in the reduced rain season. Now, of course, people are frantically spending that and more to install rain and grey water systems.

    If there’s a silver lining to this: people adapt to a new habit of conserving water.

    Let’s not ignore: the 25 litre daily quota is what many Cape Town residents already use in the poor areas. The water crisis is also tied up with gross inequality.

    Reply
      1. Expat

        True, but this is predicated on assuming that most people could then afford it. We rich people tend to forget just how precarious life is for most of the world. Life in Africa or Asia is not always like some Bloomberg documentary on up and coming entrepreneurs in Botswana. Americans spend about 6.4% of their budget on food. The developing world spends over 40% with many going up to 50%.

        This is why biodiesel and ethanol are so morally horrific (assuming oil traders and elected officials have morals in the first place). Add expensive water into the equation and you will start killing off large swathes of the world population.

        Reply
  6. Christine

    There is a population crisis…not just here, but globally, and until people face this, everything else is a Band-Aid. The population crisis is paramount in the destruction of the environment and death of humans, as well as all other natural creatures. 9 million people a year are dying from pollution…at least. In The World Without Us, Weisman says if every woman had restricted herself to 1 child, starting in 2000, the earth could be back to a sustainable population of about 1.6 billion by 2100.

    Nowhere has anyone said anything about the waste product of desalinization, the salts that destroy the water they are discharged into. No one has said how deep the wells are in Cape Town, and how fast they are going down, although a guardian.com article mentioned the rich are drilling more and more bore holes. 80% of the water is almost always used for agriculture, everywhere. But if it’s not there to use, there will be no food.

    Watch what happens in Egypt (totally unsustainable birth rate) when the Ethiopian GERD Dam starts being filled. Where I live in Mexico, Guanajuato, the population continues to rise, the wells are going dry and the Independence Aquifer also, with the NAFTA ag draining it being sent to the US. Turkey has just blocked off the Tigris Euphrates so Iraq will be a desert. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used NATO to destroy the Great Manmade River in Libya (water from the Nubian Aquifer)…look everywhere for water as the cause of war…as it was in Syria…when populations are too high to begin with, then climate change droughts raise untenable stresses.

    Reply
    1. c_heale

      What about the totally unsustainable population of the USA and Europe. These countries use far more of the Earth’s resources than any other part of the planet and most of it is wasted on unnecessary consumerist junk. The real problem in my opinion is industrialization and the use of fossil fuels.

      Reply
  7. Afrikaan

    I wonder where the idea comes from that armed guards will be needed. Millions of South Africans, many of them in Cape Town itself, queue at taps every day to collect all water needed for household use. I have never heard that armed guards are necessary.

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      That stuck out a bit. Not sure how they would help, even if they do exist? So a guard protects me drawing off my bucket of water, then I get mugged as soon as I walk around the nearest corner methinks.

      I suspect there are some, as a show for the rich to make them feel safe from The Other.

      Reply
  8. XXYY

    We’ve been warning for years that potable water is humanity’s most scarce natural resource.

    This is primarily from two factors:

    (a) Loss of snowpack and glaciers, mostly due to climate change, which leads to reduced river flows, and

    (b) Overpumping of underground aquifers, which has been going on and accelerating since the 1950s as pumping technology became better and cheaper.

    These two unrelated factors seem to be coming to a head at about the same time.

    Probably the other big life threatening issue is loss of topsoil, a scarce resource which, once lost, is gone forever, and with it, the ability to grow food. Overgrazing by animals and idiotic topsoil management are to blame here.

    Reply
  9. TG

    Yes, but missing the point.

    It’s the population growth. But more to the point, it’s population growth that has been deliberately created by the rich in order to keep wages down.

    In 1970 the population of South Africa was about 23 million. The country had a low fertility rate, and despite apartheid was fairly prosperous. The rich imported massive numbers of refugees from the poorer parts of Africa, and the population has been deliberately boosted to about 58 million and still rising rapidly. (Oh, and as far as immigration just moving people around: this is irrelevant as regards the impact of this population growth on South Africa, and also false, as everyone who gets to flee from a place like Yemen just leaves room for more to survive. Immigration maximizes global population growth).

    But even worse is the censorship of this issue. It is almost completely forbidden to talk about the impact of population growth – no, we have to blame the weather. Would Capetown be having such difficulties with the population of 1970? Hardly. Even when it is mentioned, population growth is treated like an act of god or just something that happens – any mention of how the rich are manipulating it is apparently a total taboo. Of course. Because it’s so important, and the rich want unfettered ability to breed us like cattle. And because while there rich want power, they also do not want to take any responsibility for the consequences of their actions. I mean, that might make people think that much of the profits of the rich have come from gaming the system, that their wealth is to a large degree illegitimate, and that of course would be racist.

    Reply
  10. Thuto

    Back in the first year of my engineering studies at the university of Cape Town in the late 90s, our water engineering professor warned that by 2005 Cape Town would have a water crisis on its hands. Turns out his prescience was off by 13 odd years, but accurate nonetheless. The point being that the authorities have always known that this was coming, but either failed to grasp the enormity of the threat or downplayed its seriousness for political reasons. Now the “privatization” vultures are circling and ready to pounce (never let a crisis go to waste), declaring, with the not wholly unexpected support of the business friendly Western Cape provincial government, that only the private sector can get Cape Town out of this mess. If said provincial government has its way (national government is opposing this), access to this most basic of human rights will now be administered by a profiteering bunch out to milk every last cent out of this crisis.

    Reply
    1. Thuto

      It’s worth mentioning as well that those in the poorer black townships of Cape Town have lived their version of “day zero” on and off for years, with prolonged water shortages a normal part of their lives. It’s only when the water shortages required even the more affluent white suburban areas to have their water supply rationed that this morphed into a crisis.

      Reply
    2. Jim Haygood

      Cape Town’s annual rainfall of around 500 mm (20 inches) is a bit more generous than that of Los Angeles, whose 350 mm (14 inches) of annual rainfall occurs in the same dry summer-wet winter pattern as Cape Town.

      Presumably your civil engineering professor was advocating investment in storage infrastructure. The water supply of dry Los Angeles has reached hundreds of miles north to the Sierra Nevada mountains since the early 20th century.

      Reply
  11. Roquentin

    I think we’ve really grown disconnected from how widespread massive famines used to be. There’s this pervasive belief that we could used technology to get out of any and all problems we faced, probably the most essential ideological myth of our current age, that allows people to think we won’t have these sorts of problems even when they’re staring us right in the face.

    People are talking about drinking water, which is the most obvious problem, but agriculture is the other shoe to drop. Since the overwhelming majority of freshwater is used in agriculture, wouldn’t famine necessarily follow from that?. A really bad harvest in enough places to make food importation problematic due to drought and lack of irrigation could lead to starvation on a scale we haven’t seen in decades. Overpopulation is a factor too, not the only factor, but a factor just the same.

    Reply
    1. rd

      It depends on the area and the culture.

      In North America, wheat doesn’t require much irrigation. Much of the corn is grown for ethanol and animal feed and is very water dependent in the mid-west, not so much in the northeast. Rice is very water dependent but not a huge water user.

      In California, the biggest agricultural water users, by far, are alfalfa and pasture for feeding animals, especially to produce dairy products. Next in line for water usage are rice, cotton, corn, and nuts/deciduous trees. Market vegetables only use a tiny percentage of agricultural water.

      So if we could figure out how to survive on wheat, root vegetables, market vegetables, we would find that our agricultural water demand could drop by three-quarters or more. Rice will increase water demand, but nowhere near as much as alfalfa, pasture, and corn (especially if corn ethanol mandates are eliminated).

      Reply
  12. Oregoncharles

    “Jakarta is running so dry that the city is sinking faster than seas are rising, as residents suck up groundwater from below the surface.”
    That’s what happened to New Orleans. It wasn’t below sea level when they started pumping.

    Nola sprang to mind immediately, though their problem is almost the reverse. Then there’s Los Angeles…

    I don’t know why all the examples are 3rd World; there are plenty here in the US. Wukchumni has been describing drought conditions in the Sierra Nevada; the same is true of the Cascades, though it’s mostly irrigation that is endangered. So far.

    Reply
  13. Eclair

    Leonie Joubert, a resident of Cape Town, has been practicing living on 26 liters of water per day. Here’s her use list. Note that she ‘recycles’ quite a bit of water, using sponge bath water for laundry, which then gets used for ‘flushing.’ Note also that she no longer takes showers and has shut off her water heater because too much water got used up while she waited for tap water to get hot. She heats water on the stove. Also, ‘flushing’ uses much more water than any other activity.

    Bucket bath: 3l (goes to first load of laundry, which then goes to flushing)
    Dishes: 2l
    Flushing: 20l (x 2 daily, about 12.8 l of which is grey water)
    Cooking: 1l
    Brushing teeth/washing hands: 1l
    Drinking (water, tea etc): 2l
    Laundry: 12.8l (2 x loads per week = 90l divided by 7 days = 12.8l, which goes to flushing)
    TOTAL: ±26l daily

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      When we’re backpacking in the High Sierra, perhaps we use 10 liters of water per person-per day out. About 6 of those liters are for drinking, the rest for cooking food or brushing teeth, etc.

      No need to flush when doing your business. Baths are in a lake or stream.

      Reply
  14. Jeremy Grimm

    For sake of argument assume remedies for the growing shortage of fresh water could be applied without concern for the constraints of those who rule us. We remain constrained by energy now and more so in the future eliminating desalinization as “solution” although it may be a partial solution or a stopgap. One of the biggest users of fresh water is agriculture. Much of agriculture depends on rapidly depleting aquifers and as pointed out by another commenter humankind depends on agriculture for food. Add to these difficulties the shifts in patterns of precipitation, shifts both in location and in intensity, and the random variation of those shifts. Just to make things interesting our population centers are concentrated and growing in regions where rising sea level will sour much of the local ground water. We could build some desalination facilities for the near term and make greater efforts to re-cycle the water we use, directly applying the meme of a Spaceship Earth. We could ration and conserve what fresh water we have. I’m not sure what else we might do. Planting trees and grass and plant life could help some. But I don’t believe I’m being pessimistic asserting that even in the best of circumstances we face some serious problems which may not have “happy” outcomes.

    Now consider the real world. Individuals waste water like prodigals but their waste pales compared with the wastes of industry especially when the pollution added to our fresh water is taken into account. We, including the Corporate persons, a Corporate ‘We’ if you will, are poisoning our own wells. The ongoing fracking craze makes a nice poster child. Corporate We are hard at work removing our trees and plant life. The Corporate We is fine with things as they are. Corporations don’t die from lack of water they just merge themselves away raining golden parachutes. And ‘We’ are fine with that which leaves the rest of us, we the people, with a little problem. This raises the issues addressed in the link penultimate to the last link in this post.

    I feel as though I live in the Star Trek 2nd Generation episode “The Inner Light”. Unlike in that episode, the sun in our system is relatively stable but our water situation is growing increasingly similar.

    Reply
  15. Procopius

    I recall reading a short science fiction story back in the ’50s about dealing with the water shortages that were then foreseen for the future. Things I remember from the story, all reservoirs had a layer of oil floating on top of the water to prevent evaporation. The snow pack in the Sierra Madres was harvested by spraying carbon black on it to speed up melting. I think that’s kind of moot, because there isn’t going to be any snow pack. There were other things, like severe rationing that I really don’t remember clearly. I do recall that in real life people in California as early as the ’80s were installing toilets and showers that used less water. Eventually people in Chicago and Detroit (beside the Great Lakes) and along the Mississippi will have to do the same.

    Reply

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