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Both China and South Africa Face Acute Water Challenges. Here’s How They Can Work Together.

Residents of Bhobhoy, some 120 km north of Durban, that has been badly affected by the recent drought, collect water from a free water point sponsored by concerned citizens on November 8, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP

When I visited my family in Cape Town in 2018, it was during the height of the water crisis.

Cape Town was heading towards what became known as “Day Zero”, the predicted date of the city’s water supplies running dry. The city of 4 million had just three months left to halt the water crisis when I was taking my summer vacation there. 

Day Zero emerged due to a variety of factors. First, a once in 628 years drought lowered rainfall in the Western Cape starting in 2015. As a result, the dams throughout the province began to hold less and less water. For example, Theewaterskloof Dam held between 11.7 to 12.5 percent of its capacity and became effectively unusable in 2017. An additional cause of the crisis had been the municipal government’s willful blindness to the impending water disaster; the Water Research Commission in Cape Town reported that Cape Town authorities should have begun implementing water augmentation schemes in 2012 or earlier. 

While I spent time in Cape Town, my family and I experienced the restrictions placed on water consumption to try and combat the crisis. Water usage was limited to 350 liters a day per household, and approximately 50 liters per person per day. 

South Africa faced this challenge with unique and creative solutions. While I was visiting Cape Town, my showers had to be less than two minutes each, and a variety of South African musicians came together to write two-minute songs to help Capetonians mitigate their shower time. But beyond producing new (and catchy) music to battle the crisis, Cape Town used effective strategies to prevent Day Zero that can be applied to other nations struggling with water shortage, such as China.

Just as Cape Town became the world’s first major city predicted to run out of water, the UN has predicted that Beijing will face immense water shortages as well.

The first critical step was to stop the enormous waste of water being used in the agricultural sector in Cape Town. This would greatly affect large property owners, angering the majority wealthy, white farmers, but the government of Cape Town, out of desperation or cunning, made the necessary move to save water. While I visited, I witnessed vineyards still utilizing water to produce wine while impoverished Capetonians compared the end of accessible drinking water to the conditions suffered under Apartheid. These economic and racial disparities contributed to Day Zero and persist in the identity of Cape Town as the world’s most unequal city. 

The next step was to keep the public informed. Though the crisis was belatedly addressed, as written before, the government of Cape Town played an important role in alerting citizens of their role in cooperating to conserve water. Starting in 2017, the city began publishing weekly updates on regional dam levels and water consumption and using electronic boards on freeways to notify drivers of how many days of water supply Cape Town had left. The announcement of the crisis and Day Zero date in January itself contributed to a 30% drop in water use rates. Citizens began to take initiative themselves once they realized the severity of the situation, using any means possible. For example, a campaign to donate water to poor residents in Cape Town to use in baby formula started over Whatsapp. And for those residents not willing to comply with the regulations of water, the city used desperate measures to enforce compliance, from publishing the names of non-complying residents online, to driving through neighborhoods and shouting with a bullhorn at residents using too much water.

Of course, the third and most important measure taken to avert Day Zero will be in long term planning and investment. Cape Town has already begun investing in desalination as a way to boost the water supply for residents of the city. Unfortunately, the process of building more desalination plants has been complicated by costs and mismanagement. Cape Town scrapped a longer-term desalination plant project after Day Zero due to the cost of the project. Looking past the politics of the matter, the city is looking for a facility that produces water in the range of 120 million to 150 million liters a day. Cape Town has been utilizing reverse osmosis desalination plants to supply water to the city. 

All this can serve as an excellent case for further Chinese and South African collaboration on water infrastructure and water shortage prevention. Just as Cape Town became the world’s first major city predicted to run out of water, the UN has predicted that Beijing will face immense water shortages as well. In 2014 in Beijing, each of the more than 20 million inhabitants had only 145 cubic meters. The World Bank recommends 1,000 cubic meters per person. In response, major cities across China can utilize many of the same approaches that Cape Town used to prevent water disaster. Beijing has already shown progress by employing water education projects that teach students to conserve water, similar to the massive public relations campaign undertaken by Cape Town.

And China’s expertise in water infrastructure can serve as an area for investment and cooperation with South Africa. In 2011, China invested as much as 200 billion renminbi in the Beijiang desalination plant. The Chinese government has announced plans to produce about 1.2 million tons of water a day in 2016 to 2.2 million tons by 2020 using desalination.

However, there are still challenges facing the Chinese-South African collaboration on desalination. One is the expensive price tag on desalinated water, which no level of collaboration could feasibly solve for now. MIT reports that “the average price of desalinated water in China is 75 cents to $1.20 per ton. This means the water is a hard sell for urban water authorities, and local governments are often reluctant to commit to building desalination plants.” And the threat of desalination to the environment and native animal populations is still one these rapidly developing nations must take into consideration; desalination has been found to use more fossil fuel energy and kill native marine life. And the threat of corruption is no doubt a headache to both the governments and civilians of both nations, as mismanagement and corruption continue to plague desalination projects in South Africa.

Despite these problems, the greatest threat to both nations, and their greatest area of potential collaboration, remains in combating water scarcity. Just because Day Zero no longer looms does not mean water scarcity issues have dissipated. Conversely, demand for water in South Africa continues to rise, and in China, similar reports as the onerous, foreboding Cape Times report in 1990 are beginning to emerge. Climate change will no doubt exacerbate these water concerns, but if these nations work together, perhaps they can block the rising tides of water scarcity concerns.

Joseph Mullen is a student at Cypress Bay High School in Florida.

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