Western South Africa is normally arid. The Kalahari and Namib deserts cover much of it.
In October 2017, after nearly four years of below-average rainfall intensified by 2015–2017’s extraordinarily powerful El Niño, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that her city of half a million people, perched between the ocean and that arid land, would run out of water in five months—an event she called “Day Zero.”
Her warning made global headlines and sparked fears of similar situations in cities around the world. Mission-minded Christians, who recognize the tie between environmental stresses like water shortage and poverty, were naturally concerned.
Since then, I have regularly received social media forwards with infographics about an impending “Day Zero” in this city or that. Two of the most popular causes the media blame are climate change and overpopulation.
It’s easy, and tempting, to blame climate change for natural disasters. Not surprisingly, mainstream media did so with “Day Zero.”
However, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has not caused any measurable increase in extreme weather events like drought.
Even if climate change could influence extreme weather events, there has not been enough of it to increase the frequency or severity of droughts.
Climate change has caused no drastic or dangerous increase in global temperature during the past 20 years. Satellite temperature measurements, measurements from remote sensing systems, and those from rural weather stations have shown hardly any significant increase over the period. In all likelihood, this means there has been no drastic change in the behavior of weather patterns across Cape Town, at least not due to increased global temperature.
This doesn’t mean natural cycles like El Niño can’t cause periodic droughts. They can. But they aren’t climate change, which the IPCC defines as human-induced global warming.
So if we rule out climate change, the only other major cause of water stress is increased demand. Are we running out of water because of increased demand and overpopulation? Are people finding it more and more difficult to access quality drinking water?
People often assume that population growth is bad for natural resources. They think meeting the needs of a growing population will use up resources. But a simple analysis of resource use in the past 2000 years shows otherwise.
Human beings are amazingly good at discovering natural resources. Their ingenuity leads to new technologies that channel, extract, and use water resources more efficiently. The agricultural, industrial, and residential sectors are all testaments to this.
From drip irrigation to desalination to low-flow shower heads and waterless urinals to sewage water purification, new technologies enable us to get more water, reuse much of what we get, and achieve more with each use.
Despite this, we hear every day that more people are finding it difficult to access quality water for household purposes, and that we are running out of water.
These claims prompted me to get to the root of the issue. What is the current state of affairs, globally, for water?
Access to safe drinking water increased from 76 percent of the world’s people in 1990 to 91 percent in 2015. An additional 2.6 billion people (more than a third of total population) got improved access to safe drinking water in those 25 years—285,000 per day!
That is a significant improvement in water accessibility, given the challenges faced by water resources. Major hurdles for water access include rapid depletion of groundwater, unpredictable regional weather patterns, and mismanaged expansion of human settlements. Despite all these, access to quality water resources is rising.
Access is improving not only to drinking water but also to water for agriculture and industry. And the number of people with access to improved sanitation facilities almost doubled from 2.8 billion (about half) in 1990 to nearly 5 billion (over two-thirds) in 2015.
“Day Zero” was everyday reality for billions of people who now have access to quality water for drinking, farming, and other purposes. The world is moving away from “Day Zero,” not towards it.
And what about Cape Town? Did “Day Zero” ever come there?
In January 2018, officials pushed it off from March to April 21, then April 12, then April 16. April came and went with no “Day Zero.” In May, rainfall having returned to normal with the end of the El Niño, they revised their prediction to “sometime in 2019.”
A month ago Reuters could report, “Cape Town has apparently made it through the worst of a historic drought without turning off the taps, although the water supply is still tenuous.”
According to Reuters, “it was not a silver bullet but a barrage of efforts that averted disaster.” The efforts included reducing agricultural water use by 50 percent and municipal use by nearly as much. The warnings themselves motivated people to reduce water use, but various regulations also contributed.
And if the need ever becomes great enough, Cape Town, like all other coastal cities, could desalinate seawater. The cost ranges, depending on processes, energy prices, and economies of scale, from about 3 to 4 tenths of a (U.S.) cent per gallon. That would amount to about 19 to 25 cents a day for theaverage South African, who uses about 62 gallons per day. But the total water rate per gallon would rise by only a fraction of that amount, since most water would still come from less expensive sources.
The lesson? Not that there’s never danger of water shortages. There is. But, given adequate information, motivation, and cooperation, people can overcome shortages. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years with wells, reservoirs, and aqueducts. Now they have many more tools at their disposal.
Yes, as has happened throughout history, some places will experience acute water shortages for various reasons. But those are the exception, not the rule.
Contrary to the media scare about “Day Zero” and droughts due to climate change, there’s no reason to think this trend will reverse. With every passing day, improved water access saves thousands of lives.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Bangalore, India. E. Calvin Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance.