Chandless and Piantoni
In July 2010 the United Nations General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as a human right. Without clean water it is impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of Health or to be able to break the cycle of poverty. This has been the case for Sub-Saharan Africa for a long time. The United Nations estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa wastes 40 billion hours per year collecting water.
South Africa is now in the spotlight, following Cape Town’s announcement that it will be the world’s first major city to run out of water. Water is expected to reach critical level on April 12, ominously named “Day Zero.” On this day, authorities will shut off all communal taps, forcing people to go to official water points, that will be guarded by security forces, to receive a maximum of 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of water per day. To put this in perspective, Americans on average use between 80 and 100 gallons every day. Hospitals and the most popular tourist areas will be excluded from the water shut-off, and special measures will be taken to ensure that schools have the water they need.
The South African government has issued official recommendations for Cape Town citizens in preparation for “Day 0,” but has also begun work on projects they hope will allow the city to avoid ever reaching that day. Of the seven projects that are underway, six of them are behind schedule, and not a single one is more than 60% complete. If this continues, not a single one of the much needed projects will be completed when the water is shut off. South African business men are planning to capitalize on the water shortage by shipping in water from around the country for a high price. If the South African government does not find a way to improve access to water, the current situation in Cape Town may be just a taste of what is to come over the next decade.
How did this happen? Enormous population growth in the last ~20 years, and a terribly long drought that climate experts say “only happens once in a millenium”. Rain in the last three years have been extremely scarce and not enough for the limited number of dams in the country to supply potable water. Additionally, government investment in water supply has been decreasing significantly since the 1980s:
Officials announced on February 1st of this year that residents could use a maximum of 13.2 gallons of drinking water per day, in hopes to push “Day Zero” as further as possible and hope rain would increase in the meantime. However, over 60% of residents have not complied with the restrictions, and it is very hard to keep track of the water usage. This is an example of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, where residents act independently and do not care about the common good.
- How can the world community help South Africa, as well as other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa?
- What lessons can be learned so that this does not happen in the future?
- What mistakes did the South African government make that led to the current state of crisis?