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When the Taps Run Dry: Understanding the Cape Town Water Crisis



Among the major cities of the world, this one is considered among the most beautiful. It possesses a dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain, Mediterranean-style climate, fertile vineyards in the mountainous hinterland, and sandwiched between Table Bay to the west and False Bay to the east. Equipped with world class hotels, malls, restaurants, highways, and stunning scenery, it is a top global tourist destination. This jewel of a city is called Cape Town, the mother city of South Africa.

Forty kilometres away to the south is the famous ‘Cape Point.’ Known in history as ‘The Cape of Storms,’ it was optimistically renamed ‘The Cape of Good Hope.’ This is where the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean meet the cooler waters of the Atlantic. Until the Suez Canal was built, Europe had no choice but to sail around the Cape en route to India and the East.

I have been to Cape Town 3 times and it never fails to impress. One of the most memorable experiences of my life was climbing Table Mountain with an experienced mountain-climber: high and steep, you feel like you are in a remote national park, but when you look down, there are the skyscrapers of a major metropolis below.

After three years of severe drought, Cape Town is about to get another distinction: Barring a miracle of abundant rainfall, it will be the first major city in modern times to run out of water! The city is serviced by 6 dams in arid areas. The biggest is Theewaterskloof Dam which, at present, has no more than 12% capacity of water.

Consider that the city’s population has grown 79% from 2.4 million in 1995 to 4.3 million today, yet its water storage has only increased by 15%. This in itself means the city was ill-prepared for a time of drought.

As one who teaches on Bible prophecy and the last days, if anything conjures up a poignant image of the end times, it is Cape Town running out of water. More than ballooning western debt - which at this point seems abstract; more than Middle Eastern tension, wars and jihadism - which we treat as if it is were another planet, Cape Town’s water crisis hits close to home. The reason is that if it could happen here, it can happen anywhere.

Waiting for Day Zero

Presently, the citizens of Cape Town can only use 50 litres of water a day. Remember, the average western home uses over 300 litres. If the rains don’t come, Day Zero will. This date when the city turns off the water taps (faucets). It may be in May, it maybe in June. After this date, the only way to get water in Cape Town will be from one of 200 collection points, which will be supervised by the army and police. Residents can obtain 25 litres of water, per person, per day. It will be for cooking, washing, and personal care. The maximum amount of people that can be serviced at a given collection point is 20,000.

Remember, Cape Town is no third world metropolis. Its infrastructure and setting would be the envy of any western city. Simultaneously a very European city yet increasingly African, it is also a uneven city: there are multi-million dollar homes and Babel-high skyscrapers in the inner city, inland suburbs, and the coast. This where mostly white people live. Yet, in the flat inland areas are the shanty-towns where poor people, mostly black, live. Rich or poor, white or black, the paucity of water affects all them now, and will even more so if Day Zero comes to pass.

As far back as 1990, there were predictions that Cape Town could run out of water. Desalination was deemed too cumbersome and impractical, and the one at Mossel Bay was ‘mothballed’ due to expense. Cape Town is not run by the African National Congress (ANC), but the Democratic Alliance (DA). This is considered the white-influenced opposition to the ANC. The DA has some experience and clout, yet it has not come up to speed in handling this emergency situation. The DA has encouraged big money development but with this came big water consumption, that needs to be reigned in. The ANC national government has not helped, either. Water is under local governance, however, the bulk national infrastructure is under the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Outside help was available. Modern Israel has been innovative with water conservation: despite its growing population, limited rainfall and arid climate, Israel has sufficient water for agriculture and people. It regularly offers its expertise to developing countries in Asia and Africa. In February 2016, Israel planned a Johannesburg water conference in order to share its insights. Yet, the South African government, which promotes the Palestinian cause and has excellent relations with Hamas, cancelled the conference in deference to BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions Movement against Israel). It is possible that Day Zero could have been cancelled had they been willing learned the lessons.

How Should We Respond?

First, recognise that many cities worldwide could be exactly in the same situation as Cape Town. Sao Paulo, largest city in the western hemisphere, is at risk. Ten years ago Barcelona was on the brink. Australia can not be complacent at all: Perth, Adelaide, and Melbourne are particularly vulnerable.

Prayer does wonders. In the Bible, church history, and today, prayer and falling rain go hand-in-hand (I Kings 8:35-36). Remember, this is not just Cape Town’s challenge: this challenge belongs to us all. So let’s pray for a move of God and a release of rain.

From a practical point of view, water is as any other resource, like time and money. When supplies run low, there are two things we must do: reduce consumption and increase sources. Water should be treated with respect and restraint. Long showers, letting the tap run unrestrained while you brush your teeth, toilets with only full-flush capacity rather than 1/2, are bad habits that need to be broken.

In ancient Israel, Herod the Great built the hilltop fortress of Masada, which could house 1,000 people and had enough water for 1-2 years. This is in the Dead Sea region where rainfall is no more than 5 cm (2 inches) a year, at most. The ancient Nabateans built impressive cities across the arid Negev, with plenty of water, though the rainfall was the same low level. They learned how to capture and conserve every drop of rain.

We need to learn how to do the same - rather than letting the rain water go into the drains and out to sea. Avoid wastage, plug the leaks (sometimes up to 30% of water is lost due to leaky pipes). Such commonsense methods can do wonders.

The people of Cape Town, many who are Christians, have their chance to pray, show resilience, and bounce back to full strength, setting an example for us all.

Let’s give them our full prayerful support.

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