Editorial: The politics of drought

The Western Cape will have used all its water by the end of August.

The Western Cape will have used all its water by the end of August.

The Western Cape will have used all its water by the end of August. The cold fronts that keep the province in water haven’t arrived. It will be feats of engineering that divert an all-out catastrophe.
Desalination plants and recycling will eke out supplies. And South Africa’s leaders have stopped taking water seriously, starting at the very top.

This crisis is just a small window on the near future.

Without consequences, politically connected families and individuals are mining in critical water catchments. Those catchments and wetlands catch rainfall and allow it to soak into the ground. Without them, rain crashes into the earth and rips away topsoil before flowing into the ocean. Just 8% of our land filters more than half of our water, for free.

The water and sanitation department does little. Crippled by internal politics, staff turnover and corruption, what should be the most important department in a water-scarce country can barely do its job.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in water infrastructure projects. These are guided by reconciliation scenarios, done by the department to see where a new dam or technology is needed to bring water just before demand exceeds supply. A massive network of dams and rivers gives the country the two-year buffer it needs to survive regular droughts. But those dams run behind schedule or cannot operate because of faults in their construction. A delay of half a decade in the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project will mean Gauteng will not have enough water by the end of this decade.

In each case, the delays are inevitably caused by tenders that favour connected bidders. That’s why the raising of dam walls is delayed, or communities don’t get water because the pipelines used were cheap and brittle.

Hundreds of towns and big metros are going to run dry in the next decade. The Western Cape is just a taste of what is to come.

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