Idiotic action won’t solve Cape Town’s water crisis

I am busy reflecting on the past week, which has been tumultuous. I have two little stories that need to be shared.

The first comes from an activist in Cape Town (who shall remain unnamed) who proudly announces that he is “protecting the aquifer” from which his livelihood flows. He then tells me that there are now 1,000 boreholes in his suburb alone, but not to worry, citizen scientists are the custodians, so “nothing can go wrong”. After all going “off grid” is a very green thing to do, so it has to be right, good and wholesome. I reflect on what this means, but I say nothing. The information just stews inside my head, like a meal of bad curry fighting its way through my protesting bowels.

The second comes from my return flight to Gauteng. I am one of those annoying types that talks to the person sitting alongside me. In this case there are two very colorful farmers from the Karoo. They are busy buying machinery, and speak with me in that wonderful Western Cape platteland accent that is rich, nuanced and textured. Salt of the Earth people. The kind that feature in comedy shows that get people to laugh a lot. They tell me of the “abundance of water” beneath their farms in the Karoo. They tell me of vast dams of water down there in the murky depths of the rock. They share numbers that show how vast this resource is, because it drives large irrigation systems in the desert. To them this resource in inexhaustible and their moment has arrived. They tell me that they are buying tankers and will be registering as water service providers to truck water to the rich in Cape Town. Everything will be legal, they say with pride. They speak of the financial flows into their bank accounts that will soon be realized as the thirsty citizens are obliged to buy their water. Farmers understand the laws of supply and demand.

Again I say nothing, but simply listen. My bowels protest, but I remain polite and resist the flatulent desire building up in me. Now back in my office, I reflect and contextualise what I have just witnessed. I go back to my PhD studies in London, when I was working under Prof Tony Allan, before he won the Stockholm Water Prize (the Nobel Prize for water). You see, Tony Allen had collected an amorphous mass of “interesting” post graduate students from across the planet. All were oddballs, including myself, but all were driven by an insatiable curiosity and inexhaustible energy that I have never before (or since) witnessed in a group of academics. All had come from one discipline, but were now migrating to another, because of the limitations of their original disciplines.

Now here is the string that wraps this story together.

Two of the PG students were working on the Yemen. Chris Hanley, a geo-hydrologist, and Gerhard Lichtenthaler, a geographer, now both Doctors, were two of my companions in that PG common room in Russell Square (along with Ghulam Farouk, a former Mujahid who had fought the Russians in Afghanistan, and was now becoming a peacemaker in that troubled land). Through their collective work I was exposed to the Yemen, and this is now 100% relevant to the Western Cape. Yemen is essentially a desert, inhabited by tribespeople with deep-rooted loyalties and ongoing blood feuds that span generations. Yemen has the highest number of Kalashnikov assault rifles per capita in the entire world. It’s an interesting place. Real men proudly carry a curved dagger called Jambiya made of rhino horn – the symbol of masculinity – in their broad belts. Their culture grew in parallel with the absence of water, making use of what is known as a Khanat (a communal tunnel system that intercepts water along gradients and takes it from the Wadis in the highlands to the parched valleys below). This worked for centuries until a Western development agency decided to “help”, to “modernise” by introducing borehole drilling and pumping technologies. Vast volumes of water flowed from the newly-drilled boreholes, and everyone was happy. Sheiks became the envy of all as they fed guests pomegranates, oranges and proudly displayed fields of lush green alfalfa while chewing Khat. But then the Khanats started to run dry, after centuries of reliable flow that had sustained generations of tribespeople and kept the blood feuds well oiled. You see, by introducing modern technology into a traditional society, the balance of power was changed and a race to the bottom was triggered.

Today the wadis, that used to be the source of secure water in a desert, have been pumped dry. Today Yemen is again in crisis. The lesson we need to learn from Yemen is not to repeat the same mistake in the Western Cape. If we have 1,000 boreholes today, and farmers are about to become water vendors, then in six months time there will be 10,000 boreholes, and the race to the bottom will be unstoppable.

Wisdom happens when one observes different things and starts to connect the dots in a way that creates new knowledge. Tony Allan’s gang of eclectic PG students left London and have now populated different parts of the planet, as custodians of new knowledge about water. They certainly live in interesting times! Some people even listen to them on occasion as they ramble on about their insights into water and fight the need to flatulate from time to time.

Anthony Turton is a water strategist and a member of the Water Leapathon Advisory Board.

1 Comment on "Idiotic action won’t solve Cape Town’s water crisis"

  1. Hey Anthony, I do hope your bowls feel substantially better now that you have had your rant which by the way, I totally loved reading as it tickled me pink with laughter. Needless to say, I read this recent article and can’t help wondering if you are perhaps a participating contributor to the ingenious behind it?

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