BONE DRY: Knysna, and its lagoon, in the Western Cape. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
BONE DRY: Knysna, and its lagoon, in the Western Cape. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The blamers are having a field day with Cape Town’s water crisis, and it is almost understandable that politicians of every stripe will see it as the perfect opportunity to score points. And, without any doubt, there is much in this emergency that should arouse righteous anger.

The DA’s administrations in Cape Town and in the province responded too late to warnings that they heard as long ago as 2004. There have been responses, such as the construction of the Berg River Dam, but overall, it has been too little too late.

As the crisis deepened, the city widened the scope for possible solutions and sought tenders for, among other projects, the abstraction of groundwater and for desalination. But in each instance, the city authorities failed to escalate the matter to national government.

The city followed the law to the letter, perhaps so that it might plausibly deny liability if it failed.

It is now understood that the water-demand assessments were based on trends set after a series of relatively wet seasons that adequately filled the dams, but disregarded the fact that consumption would necessarily be lower during and just after wet seasons. It means mayor Patricia de Lille’s assertion that if consumption is contained at 500-million litres a day, Day Zero would be postponed to March 2018, is little more than wishful thinking. January 2018 is more likely.

This is no time for political games and recriminations, no matter how justified

Most alarming, though, is the near-absolute inaction of the national government. The closest Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane came to the crisis was to pay a visit to De Lille and then admonish Capetonians to cut their consumption or face severe penalties. If anything, the government should have been even more aware of the impending crisis, not just of the longer-term weather trends but that the population growth of Cape Town far outstripped the province’s capacity to provide potable water to all.

The official attitude is reflected in the National Disaster Management Centre’s refusal to provide the city with the R500m it needs, even though the agency has underspent its budget by R300m. This must mean the government is either prepared to see the DA fail in the Western Cape no matter what the cost, or it is profoundly ignorant of the consequences of its inaction.

But this is no time for political games and recriminations, no matter how justified they may seem; there will be time enough for that. It is apparent that at no level of government is there a full understanding of what it would mean for the entire country were Cape Town to run out of water.

In the first instance, there is a growing likelihood of mass migration of people over a frighteningly short time as the Cape’s economy begins to fail. In the worst-case scenario, SA may be faced with millions of water refugees. And the people who are unable to migrate will face enormous difficulties just to gain access to drinking water, while the sewerage system collapses, disease breaks out and medical services fail.

The Cape’s water crisis is a humanitarian disaster in the making from which the country certainly cannot recover.

Yet, there is still time to implement emergency measures, though no one will be able to do anything while everyone is blaming everyone else.

There also must be an understanding that while there are serious environmental and financial issues related to any short-term intervention, there will be no long term to speak of if the state does not respond to the immediate crisis.

The first thing to do is to call an immediate emergency meeting between all three levels of government and the country’s leading water and engineering experts – this week. The money, equipment and skills are available to solve the problem, but what the Cape no longer has is time.

SA cannot afford to lose Cape Town, but the city needs the rest of us now.

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