Editorial: Lessons for the world in Cape Town

  • Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 2. AP

Friday, February 09, 2018

The people of New Hampshire have a lot of issues competing for their attention these days. There are debates underway about opioid addiction, school vouchers, victims’ rights, rising property taxes, renewable energy, health care, gun control and countless other matters that are important in the day-to-day lives of Granite Staters. Nationally, a polarizing president with a knack for hijacking the news every day has proven to be exhausting for those who like to keep up with current events. One minute the national conversation is about immigration or the federal budget, and then just like that there is coast-to-coast shouting match over national anthem protests or some House committee memo.

Rarely has the news cycle felt more dizzying.

By the time people digest the stories of local, state and national concern, there is very little time for international news, unless it’s about the most recent terror attack, Russian election meddling or saber-rattling from North Korea. A lot of Americans probably are not even aware of what’s happening in Cape Town, South Africa.

After three years of drought, the city of 4 million people on the southern tip of Africa is going to run out of water within months. For now, residents are limited to 13 gallons a day, which Aryn Baker, Time’s Africa bureau chief and Cape Town resident, writes is “enough for a 90-second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, a sinkful to hand-wash dishes or laundry, one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush.” When “Day Zero” arrives, projected for mid-May, the taps will be turned off. What happens then? The city will set up 200 water collection points where people will be allowed to pick up about 6 gallons per day. City officials planning for the seemingly imminent arrival of Day Zero must also consider risks beyond the water shortage itself, including sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy as supplies become more and more scarce.

Cape Town and Concord are separated by about 7,700 miles of ocean, and maybe that makes the water crisis too remote to hit home in any meaningful way. But Cape Town’s “once in a millennium” drought should be viewed as a harbinger of events to come. What, for example, will Los Angeles or San Diego look like if their Day Zero ever comes?

There are many factors that contributed to the crisis in Cape Town beyond the drought, such as outdated water infrastructure, and poor population planning and crisis management. And it’s not like the whole mess came out of nowhere. Baker cited this April 26, 1990, headline in the Cape Times as proof: “City will run out of water ‘in 17 years.’ ” The math may have been off, but the warning was clearly not taken as seriously as it should have been. Now 4 million people find themselves preparing for a worst-case scenario scheduled to arrive on
May 11.

Cape Town’s lesson for a world living under the increasing strain of climate change is this: waiting for crises to move from the horizon to the front door before acting is an expensive and potentially catastrophic failure of government.

Sadly, that is too often the way in this short-sighted world, from Concord to Washington, D.C., to Cape Town, South Africa.