Our inconvenient truth

When a regionally important town of more than 34 000 inhabitants such as Beaufort West in the Karoo has to rely on Gift of the Givers, a Muslim charity, to drill boreholes to provide water to residents, you know something very bad is going on.
And when a major historical, educational, judicial and religious centre of more than 67 000 inhabitants (more during term time) such as Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, has to rely on the same Muslim charity for water supplies, you know that “something very bad” is a euphemism. There’s a crisis.
And yes, we’re not talking about ANC incompetence, corruption, state capture and all of that. But more importantly, we’re talking more about what happens when one runs out of water.
Think about it: you live on a smallholding so you probably have a borehole. If you’re very lucky you have both a borehole (or even two or three) and access to municipally-supplied water. That gives you almost fail-safe security. If your boreholes fail, you still have access to municipal water, albeit at a cost. And if the municipal supply fails (which happens on the plots as well as in town) you should have access to the water from your borehole, even if it requires a bit of ingenuity in your piping network.
But what happens when your borehole dries up, and the municipal supply ceases? Oh, sure, you can borrow from a neighbour. And when his borehole dries up? What then? Well, you can buy bottled water from the local shop. And when the shop runs out?
What happens then, unless you can afford to travel to somewhere that does have water, or have made a plan with tanks and rainwater for example, is that you will, basically, die.
But not immediately. First, you will start to smell, because you will be unable to wash. Then you will become hungry, because water is a key constituent of just about any foodstuff. Vegetables need it to grow, animals need it to live and people need it to cook with.
Next you will become sick because, unable to wash, or rinse food before consumption, or flush your toilet, you will contract dysentery or typhoid.
And all of this will take place while you are feeling very, very thirsty, because even if you consider water to be nothing more than something to put under bridges, you also need it for the production of the brandy and coke, or beer, or wine, that may be your habitual form of hydration.
And with extreme thirst will come desperation. Even the most mild-mannered individual will fight, steal and even kill to gain access to water. At this rate it is true that the next great wars will be fought over access to water. Wait and see how things develop over the next couple of years between Egypt and Sudan as the latter complete their mega-dam on the Nile upstream of the Egyptian border.
The point is that life is impossible without water, either for you or the plants and animals around you that sustain you. You can do without electricity, even though it may be inconvenient. You can do without fish, or meat, or fruit, though your diet may not be as healthy as it should be. Hell, teenagers can even do without their cellphones and not suffer a fatal breakdown! But no water? Impossible.
And there’s a spin-off which is rarely considered. Your local economy will die, because there will be no tourists, no visitors, and no industry. Consider the fall-off in tourists to the Western Cape following the water rationing early last year, now thankfully nothing more than a bad memory … hopefully.
The problem with crises such as this one (and the looming scarcity of water is not confined to southern Africa) is that it creeps up on one. And activists and scientists are the first to stridently point out the looming calamity, their cries, pleas and warnings often decried by politicians and Luddites, or at the very least simply ignored.
Oh, it’s considered nothing more than an “inconvenient truth”.
But as time moves on, things go from mildly concerning, to bad, to worse and finally to the point of no return, ending in a coffin.
Are we at the point of no return in South Africa? Not yet. But what we save through mandatory water restrictions on the one hand, we squander through leaky infrastructure and pollution of our rivers, and acid mine drainage on the other.
So unless we urgently tackle meaningfully the pollution of our rivers and the mitigation of persistent drought conditions in the worst affected areas we certainly will be at the point of no return, sooner that we could think possible.
And that’s a very scary thought.