Why don’t we love water anymore?

It’s easy to forget the importance of water.

Most people reading this live in a city — all you have to do is turn a tap. And the quality is almost the best in the world. It’s almost too good.

Actually, it is too good and it’s too cheap. We’ve forgotten where water comes from, how valuable it is, and how vulnerable we are because of it.

A while ago my dad told me water will be the biggest news story of the 21st century. Many of us are wrapped in cocoons and not really affected by water scarcity, but a short trip outside our cities to chat to people who aren’t plugged into the big municipal supplies, will show how precarious our near future will be. For now most of us remain blissfully unaware of how critical water is. We have lost contact with a basic scientific fact: Water is life.

Yes, it’s a handy catchphrase, but has there ever been a better one? Is there a more eloquent way to explain the importance of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen combining in liquid form that brings life wherever it flows. It’s the elixir of life and the reason we call this little dot in the universe the Blue Planet.

Until very, very recently our own department of water affairs was loth to admit in public that we might have a teeny tiny problem with our water supplies. But in stuffy rooms and halls across the water sector people were worried. Why isn’t water scarcity being taken seriously? Why haven’t we built any dams?

Then treasury announced its huge monetary plans for water infrastructure. Dams for the whole country. Dams, dams and more dams. It’s raining dams? Perfect. We don’t have much water so let’s build a whole lot of places to store it and solve everyone’s problems — even if quite a lot of this water is really going to mining and electricity generation.

Problem is, as with our electricity supply, we’ve woken up a tad too late. For a decade and a bit there was no investment. The development mirrors the catastrophe with Eskom so closely, it makes me wonder if the sectors are twins — ah wait, they are. The water-food-energy nexus is at the heart of any country. So one pillar collapsed and now the next is teetering.

Buried deep within the treasury’s budget paperwork was a paragraph about the water shortage we’ll have by 2025. A few newspapers ran with this. One even put it online on a Thursday night after everyone was asleep, then killed it the next morning.

The minister of environmental affairs — under which DWA falls — admitted that there might be a bit of a problem, but it would be under control.

At the World Water Forum held in Marseilles, France, last week, this same minister, Edna Molewa, said there was a serious problem and buy-in was needed from the private sector to help it. Eskom managed to sneak in the fact that they are fine if the region suffers a severe drought before 2020 — they’re deemed “strategic water users” so get preferential access, but industry and agriculture would be severely limited. The great hope is the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands water scheme coming online in 2020.

So — let’s leave the further future for a few years — we’re sitting with a situation where water resources are going to be a bit tight until 2020. And by 2030 demand will outstrip supply by 17%, even if you ignore that pesky climate change thing.

Now this is life. Government focuses on different things — the kind of things that get votes — and moves along until a catastrophe looms. Then something happens and the focus changes.

But water gets votes. In any rural community water is right next to jobs as the most sought-after thing. Yes, the roll out of water systems to these communities has been impressive and on paper we have met our millennium development goals when it comes to water. However, as many as a third of these systems don’t work. So there isn’t water for millions. Add this gigantic demand with the needs of all our development plans and you start to realise the maths just doesn’t equal the dreams.

This situation isn’t new.

We aren’t the first civilisation to be faced with a water crisis of epic proportions. History is littered with groups of people who popped their heads up and did something really good, then vanished to be covered in the desert sands. We build our cities on their ruins and compete to control and channel nature better than they did.

Percy Bysshe Shelley mocked our arrogance in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk on a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For 3 000 years the Old Kingdom ruled Egypt. Diverting the waters of the Nile, its rulers built huge cities and vast burial chambers. Their mathematics and medicines were highly advanced. But a drought evaporated much of the water over the entire Middle East. For a century nothing would grow. The kingdom collapsed and for a thousand years Egypt had its own Dark Ages.

So how have we forgotten the importance of water? And if you aren’t worried yet, ponder the following: corporations finely balance anything that affects their profit margins and return to investors. They are worried. This is why so many of them have water-saving projects.

So maybe you should stick your hands in a stream — if you can find one — and feel that water rippling over your hands. Look at your reflection in it.

Remember the importance it has played throughout our history. After all, nearly two-thirds of the human body is made up of water.

Do your bit to save water, it’s precious and all the water that will ever be, exists now.

South Africa’s annual rainfall is half the world average and water infrastructure is crumbling. The M&G is keeping tabs

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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