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Cities facing ‘Day Zero’ threat to water supply


Cities facing ‘Day Zero’ threat to water supply

While water covers more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, over one billion people lack access to water and another 2.7 billion find it scarce for at least one month of the year. A 2014 survey suggests that one in four of the world’s largest cities are facing “water stress”. And the UN estimates that the global demand for freshwater will outpace its supply by 2030. Some of the reasons for this deficit of water include human action, climate change, poor management, overpopulation and urbanization.

The world was shocked earlier this year when the city of Cape Town in South Africa announced that it would reach “Day zero” in May, when taps in the city would go dry and people would have to start queuing for water. Fortunately, the city has now postponed this day to 2019. While the crisis has been postponed for now it is still essential to consider the case of how Cape Town reached this point and what other big cities such as Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo and Sao Paolo (all heading in this direction) can learn from it.

Cape Town is a buzzing metropolis and a major tourist destination which is responsible for close to 10 per cent of South Africa’s GDP. It was named by the New York Times as the best place to visit in 2014. However, Cape Town is one of the most unequal cities in the world where the wealthy mostly white population occupy the coastal and suburban areas while the poor, mostly black population are forced to live far away from the economic centre.

Leading up to Day Zero
Cape Town has faced a drought for the past three years because of historically low rainfalls. This is an aberration from the usual rainfall the city experiences. Average rainfall in the city has dipped to less than 15 inches per year from a historic average of 30 inches per year with 2017 being the worst year for rainfall since 1933. In addition to this low rainfall, the city experienced a huge influx of population over the past 20 years placing additional stress on resources. The city’s population had grown by 67 per cent from 2.4 million in 1996 to 4 million in 2017. This increase in population brought an increase in agricultural expansion including wine production which accounts for 1.5 million tourists a year but accounts for one-third of the water used in agriculture.

In addition to the lack of foresight and poor water management by city officials, politics between the two major parties played a role in creating this catastrophe. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is in power in the city while the African National Congress (ANC) is in power at the Centre and both have some responsibility of water management for the city. The DA is seen as representing the interests of the rich (white) population while the ANC is viewed as guarding the interests of the black population. There is a perception that this tension between these two parties in power at two levels of government, led to a lack of coordination, and mismanagement at the cost of the Cape Town’s inhabitants.

If Day Zero does arrive, it will have catastrophic short-term and long-term impacts on the city and the country with reference to the following areas:
Health: Pressure on the sanitation system will increase the potential of spread of diseases such as dysentery. Diseases could also be spread due to loss of hygiene by not washing hands or bathing regularly. Dehydration and heat strokes could become more common. This is not to mention the increase in mental health concerns and the potential violence involved as people could have to fight over limited water resources.

The Economy: In the long-run, jobs in the country will be hit, as well as economic growth. Estimates suggest that close to 300,000 jobs in the agricultural sectors and tens of thousands more in the service and hospitality sectors will be lost. Agricultural output is expected to be cut by 20 per cent in 2019 and it be difficult to estimate the loss of revenue from decreased tourism. All this will impact the city (and therefore the country’s) growth, increase borrowing and impact its credit rating.

The impact will be felt differently by the rich (mostly white) and the poor (mostly black) populations in the city for obvious reasons. The argument made by the rich is that they pay most of the taxes and therefore, should be provided more water or fewer restrictions on the use of water. The argument from the other side is that they have survived on historically-limited water resources in poorer areas. It is now time for the rich to do their part

M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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