A drought is caused by prolonged dry conditions that threaten to deplete the country’s water resources. It results from lack of rain; snow; or sleet, which affects the ability of water reservoirs to replenish. Drought is effectively a prolonged hot temperature that causes moisture to evaporate from the soil, rivers and streams to dry up, and plants and livestock begin to die. Droughts are a natural phenomenon but there is a significant contribution of human activity, like water misuse and mismanagement, which deepen the impact of the drought and of course greenhouse emission that causes global warming.
Today, Cape Town’s six major water dams are full. This, however, was the case even in 2014. Then came three consecutive years of little to no winter rains, unchanging water demand and use, inability to take advice about preparing for an impending disaster, and the inevitable happened: Day Zero knocked at the door. There is never a time to be complacent when it comes to water supply, especially in South Africa. This is what Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Northern Cape are learning.
After a drought, an equally prolonged period of rainfall is required for the soil to soak and absorb water sufficiently to be able to reproduce and be fruitful. Western Cape is currently enjoying regular and sufficient winter rainfalls, dams are overflowing and the soil is moist. Western Cape is the prime example that it takes enough and regular rain to end a drought.
What causes droughts?
Droughts do not happen overnight. Only a prolonged dry and hot season qualifies as a drought. High temperatures affect ocean temperatures, which generally dictate in land weather patterns. Drastic changes in oceanic temperatures directly correlate to weather changes inland. The drier the land the less moisture is evaporated into the atmosphere and the less likelihood for that evaporation comes back as rain.
Drought, of course, is a natural phenomenon, but things like greenhouse gas emissions are having an impact on the likelihood of drought and its intensity. This is climate change and global warming. It causes rising temperatures, which make dry regions even more dry. Climate change also alters weather patens from their typical path so that an expectation of winter rains in Western Cape and Summer rains in the rest of the country is no longer guaranteed.
Humanity’s role in deepening the drought and water crisis is very clear. Population growth and intensive agricultural water use contribute to imbalance in water supply and demand. Studies in countries like the United States have shown that between 1960 and 2010, consumption of water increased by 25%. This means there was more pumping of groundwater, extraction in rivers and reservoirs matched with less than expected rains, which inevitably results in water stress in many areas. Irrigation and hydroelectric dams have also dried lakes and rivers and downstream water sources.
Deforestation and extensive farming can destroy the quality of land and its ability to absorb and retain water, causing less water to feed into the water cycle, resulting in possible drought.
How do we monitor droughts? One way is to check weather satellites in space. For example, satellite data was used to develop a tool that alerts farmers about upcoming flash droughts. This information can be used to estimate evapotranspiration, which is a measure of how much water is being transferred from the land to the atmosphere through the soil and plants.
The natural phenomenon of drought is beyond our control but the deepening of it through human effort is within our reach. For starters, we can start using water wisely and using it more efficiently, helping us stretch the litres of water we have and prepare for no-rain days.
The most important thing for South Africa is to fix our aging and crumbling water infrastructure. We continue to lose drinkable water due to aging infrastructure, faulty meters, crumbling pipes and leaky water mains. The Water Research Council estimated this loss to be above 25%.
Secondly, businesses can also be smart and use water and energy efficient technologies. Farmers can plant drought tolerant plants and apply water-efficient irrigation techniques. The biggest consumer of water of course is agriculture and it is said to withdraw 70% of water from any nation’s water supply. This means water efficiency in the agricultural sector holds a key to sustainable water for everyone. There needs to be drastic improvements in irrigation techniques, moving from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, and better irrigation scheduling for different stages of crops.
Much of industrial activity can use recycled water and help us protect drinkable and fresh water from wastage. Recycled water is water that comes from sinks, shower drains, washing machines that could be reclaimed and recycled if we had proper functioning treatment works.
However, with so many water treatment works in dysfunctional state in many provinces, this means treated water that could be used as cooling water for power and oil refineries, watering public parks and golf courses, and replenishing groundwater supplies is not sufficiently available.
Thirdly, we need strong water governance. Water governance is largely the responsibility of the local government. It is critically important for local governments to have strong water governance for water management to succeed. Local governments must be able to manage the water supply and demand in order to protect water resources and ensure the stretch of available litres.
At the current level of water management, which is loose and poorly regulated, South Africa is said to face a water deficit of 17% by 2030. It becomes important to leverage all stakeholders, from public, private, schools, businesses, communities, scientists and other water experts in order to ensure water consciousness becomes our daily lived reality and water conservation becomes everyone’s responsibility.
South Africa has low rainfall and low per capital water availability compared to other countries. We have an average of 500mm annual rainfall. This is while water demand has been increasing at a high rate with main economic sectors behind the rising demand. In South Africa, agriculture accounts for 63% of water consumption, followed by municipal use at 26% and then industrial use at 11%.
We therefore need effective water management but as Voge et al 2000 said: “Effective drought management strategies have been impeded by coordination problems and a lack of ability of government.”
We need our water authorities to be much stronger on water governance. Otherwise, when summer rains finally come, we will not store and keep as much water as we should.
Yonela Diko is spokesperson to Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu. You can follow him on Twitter on @yonela_diko.