The new normal philosophy of all-too-many business leaders and politicians in Cape Town, when it comes to water, is uninspiring and frankly sickening. Frantically waving the white flag, they boast that Cape Town won’t run out of water this year, no Day Zero.
But there will not be very much water, either.
Rationing remains; agriculture is suffering; this so-called new normal talk is the language of defeat and the absence of a vision.
The diagram we have drawn up (above) shows the difference between ambition and submission.
We have an ambition to bring Cape Town – and South Africa itself – to an era of abundance, where water is an accelerator for economic growth; an enabler, not a constraint. A future filled with hope, where people can thrive, rather than merely survive under a perpetual burden of scarcity.
Look at the lower line, which shows the plans, one hesitates to call them ambitions, of the City of Cape Town, for the next five years.
Their vision involves “investing” just enough to move to an era when we will get by, if we are careful, and we don’t shower for too long. We will simply take from agriculture when we need it and to hell with them.
We use that word “investment” cautiously, because it’s not a real investment that yields dividends to society over time, but rather a grudge expense viewed narrowly as a cost to be avoided.
Better than the current restrictions, but their new normal is a water-tight normal and always constrained. Look at what austerity planning has done to Greece, Spain and Portugal. This is the face of austerity in South Africa.
Then look at the more ambitious, less frugal, vision of a future of abundant water supply – shown in the top section of the graph.
This is where we invest in the genuine sense of that word, because the benefits that will accrue go to all citizens in the form of prosperity and wellbeing.
A thriving economy means that jobs are created, and the tax burden is more equitably distributed, so we attract more investment as confidence is rekindled by inspirational leadership. The New Water we create through technology will mean that the city is decoupled from the vagaries of a wildly variable climate regime, so agriculture can have a sound future as a major generator of foreign exchange, a contributor to the fiscus and a creator of jobs.
Dams will remain fuller, so we will have more security of supply and confidence in our ability to face climate change with confidence rather than fear.
Will it take prayers, a miracle? Nope.
It will take investment in a few ambitious projects. Some to re-use water, not for drinking but for the many other uses which do not require such high quality. This has been successfully done in KZN where recycled sewage is supplied as process water to a major paper mill and an oil refinery.
It would also require desalination plants, not on the Legoland scale of the ones currently being constructed by the City, but adult versions, with worthwhile, bountiful output. These would use green energy, so their carbon footprint is dramatically reduced, for this is the way of the modern world outside its own restricted vision.
The barriers to all this? Technology?
No. The technology is there, proven, effective. It has worked in Israel, in Singapore, in Australia, in Qatar, in all sorts of places. Ironically, cutting-edge technologies have been used in advanced economies like Singapore, sourced from Cape Town, so we don’t even have to look too far. All we must do is enable our own economy.
And the money?
Well, we will need more than the pocket money being spent on the City’s current toytown projects. Our research tells us that the private sector is willing to make the investments needed, for they too want a stable country and a return to the well-being of an unconstrained economy.
But the government has just signed off on R56bn in private sector renewable power projects (which should eventually proceed, despite trade union challenges). It is looking at two big floating terminals for importing gas into Coega and Richards Bay, and may then move on to Saldanha Bay.
It works for green energy and it can work for blue water.
The money is out there, looking for viable projects to invest into. With the right regulatory environment, and an acceptance that the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) route is the logical, sensible one, we will move, in a very short time, to water abundance.
By abundance, we don’t mean wasteful, but rather bountiful in a way that enables wealth to be created and shared in an inclusive economy. But it needs open minds, ambition, vision.
There are encouraging signs that after the new normal defeatism of the DA, our new President will be vocal and effective in the water debate.
He will find many allies among those of us who see water not as a problem, but as an exciting economic enabler, a major opportunity.
Martin Humphries is publisher of The Cape Messenger, and Professor Anthony Turton is a water strategist