Dr Anthony Turton, water expert at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, South Africa, is quoted as saying, “…The city of Cape Town could conceivably become the first major city to run out of water, and that could happen in the next four months….”

The City of Cape Town’s Twitter feed reports that dam levels are at 19.7%, the city is currently at 78 million litres over its 500 million consumption target and “Day Zero” (the day when taps will be switched off and the city of 3.75 million will have to start drawing water from some 200 collection points) is on 22 April 2018.

How could this have been allowed to happen?

The answers to that question are legion and depend upon which end of the political spectrum that you sit. Firstly, the city (and the Western Cape Province) are ruled by an Opposition coalition, much to the ANC Government’s chagrin. Thus the ANC government WANTS the Opposition coalition to fail so it can muscle its way back into power. Secondly, to my mind, water has never featured highly on any of the various City Administrations’ priority lists so the current Administration reacted to this impeding crisis with too little and too late. Thirdly, the central Government Department of Water Affairs, which is responsible for managing and planning bulk water supplies, is fraught with corruption and maladministration, and is also desperately short of key water planning and engineering professionals.

However, one needs to go deeper into this matter. The real cause of the problem is firstly, population growth and secondly poor spatial, resource and management planning.

I was, briefly, head of the Environmental Planning section in the Town Planning Branch of the Cape Town City Planner’s Department during the late 1980’s and even at that stage, there was no consensus on how to deal with:- a) the flood of migrants from the rural areas pouring into the suburbs of Cape Town looking for jobs and the proverbial “streets paved with gold”; b) accurately quantifying the size and scale of the infrastructural problems that this created; c) adapting and updating the medium and long term water provision planning requirements for city (formal and informal).

The “elephant in the room” in Africa is, and always has been, rampant population growth which puts enormous pressures on resources, job creation, education, infrastructural provision, and of course, is often linked, hand-in-hand, with poverty. It is highly unlikely that this will ever be adequately dealt with unless there are major mind-set and resource allocation changes made in education provisions, health education provisions and changes in definitions and responses to the provision of jobs and remuneration.

I have no magic and all-encompassing solutions to these problems. However, I do have one plea that we include in future decision-making. That is, that we must take long term planning and its continuous updating seriously, and not allow politicians to tinker with the data on a five year cycle basis, to fit in with their re-election priorities. Infrastructural planning for water, power, roads, cities, etc. to cope with population growth must be planned on a long term basis. Financial provisions must be made in advance if we are to have any hope of even beginning to meet the sustainable requirements of future generations. The current water crisis in Cape Town and the Eskom power supply crises of the past two decades are painful lessons that must tell us that we have to do better in this regard if we are to prevent chaos and anarchy.

Arend Hoogervorst

Editor: Practical Environmental Options

Managing Partner: Eagle Environmental