Editor’s Note: Jackie Ratner is senior project manager at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Cape Town, South Africa, is set to run out of fresh water for its 4 million citizens on July 15. On that day – known as “Day Zero” – the city plans to set up 200 water access points for gathering 6.6 gallons of water per person per day. That’s 200 access points for a critical resource, shared among 4 million people.
The tragedy is that with proper planning and effective early interventions, this crisis could have been averted. Many experts believe that warning bells were chiming as early as 1990, but now Cape Town may have the dubious distinction of being the first major developed city calling in the military to keep the peace over water scarcity.
It’s immaterial whether or not you believe climate change is to blame, because disaster preparedness and mitigation are crucial either way – and could have helped Cape Town.
But this issue of water scarcity and preparedness isn’t just limited to a city in Africa. Not one of us willingly goes a day without consuming water: whether by drinking, washing, or eating food that irrigation and agriculture produced. We all have a stake in its preservation, which should be meaningful because water scarcity can affect populations nearly anywhere on the planet. In any given year, at least 3.4 billion people globally are susceptible to freshwater scarcity.
Consider Australia’s terrible “millennium drought” – a drought so severe it only had a 1 in 1,000 chance of happening. California likewise had devastating aridity just recently, and NASA estimates this cost the area 11.9 trillion gallons of water. (That’s enough water for America’s 300 million-plus citizens to use for over a year.) Simultaneously, Brazil lost 15 trillion gallons of water from underground reservoirs. Even worse, a full third of water basins across the world are running low.
As mentioned, South Africa already knew that severe water shortages were potential dangers. As early as 10 years ago, seven municipal projects to expand freshwater access began. But six out seven of these projects are behind schedule, indicating they weren’t prioritized until very recently.
While this is a tragedy for all, the impact for certain groups of society will be exceptionally severe. How can an elderly person stand in line outdoors for hours a day, or carry 25 liters of water (55 pounds) back home? What single parent can afford to take a day off work to wait to gather water for dependent children? And let’s not forget that worldwide, over 2,000 children per day already die of thirst.
Prior to reaching a crisis point, other measures can be taken to prevent the traumatic social stress that is now inevitable.
Water scarcity is different from disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes because it gives us an unprecedented degree of lead-time for preparation. So why aren’t we taking advantage of that? Human psychology makes us apathetic about mitigating risks that we (incorrectly) think won’t affect us. As far as recipes for disaster go, this combination is a doozy. We simply can’t wait until a water crisis becomes an immediate threat.
Mitigation means accepting that there is a risk in our future, and taking action now to try and minimize that risk. In this case, it means accepting that water scarcity is a reality for all of us, and collaborating in efforts to conserve water and utilize it judiciously. Although some Capetonians continue to use three times their allotted water, most are joining “water committees” dedicated to actively promoting conservation. It’s a good start, but would have been more effective if they had begun much sooner.
Preparedness will look different in every locale, because it depends on the physical environment, the political system, levels of urbanization, and more. But a few concepts are broadly applicable: responsible governance of shared resources, cultural shift toward conservation and collaboration across sectors.
With an understanding public, the government in Cape Town may well have imposed more severe consumption restrictions earlier, given foresight to the needs of vulnerable populations and appropriated resources to advance infrastructure projects faster. Early private sector engagement could have pushed new technologies such as saltwater desalinization systems, or established mutual aid agreements for emergency water supplies. While such an agreement might secure emergency rations from sources farther afield and guarantee a specific quantity for delivery, it is only a supplement to adequately managing the crisis in full.
Short-term conveniences and comforts are finite. Collectively, we need to adjust to a “new normal” that includes redirecting our priorities and resources toward mitigation. If the societal benefit isn’t enough, then remember that the National Institute of Building Sciences calculated every $1 spent in preparedness saves $6 in future disaster costs.
And both climate change believers and deniers need to get on board with disaster preparedness. Being right isn’t going to quench your thirst forever.