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Energy crisis can teach us how to avoid water crisis

by Zahid Jadwat

In 2007, South Africa experienced the first bouts of an electricity crisis that would grow to become the norm a decade later. This year, Gauteng has shown signs of a water crisis that threatens to be just as, if not more, crippling if not swiftly arrested.


The signs of the energy crisis run as far back as 1998, when a report predicted Eskom would begin failing to meet electricity demand by 2007 if action was not taken. More than two decades later, frequent series of load shedding have become the norm. The fact that the early signs of a looming energy crisis predate my lifetime indicates the lack of action to address the issue. It has become something we, as a nation, have come to accept as having come part of the package of being South African. Except none of us ever signed up for it.


Today, we face a similar crisis looming large above the horizon. Gauteng has particularly been the centre of attention in light of widespread water shortages triggered, as they said, by a heatwave earlier this month. As inhabitants of this expansive city said to be ‘a world-class African city’, our taps running dry five out of seven days may have caught us by surprise but we have only to look at dorpies in many parts of the country where they have become used to a chronic water crisis just as we have accepted the energy crisis.


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In investigating the water issues of small towns, it would be possible to deduce two possible outcomes: we could see what we stand to experience regularly should the symptoms of a larger problem not be treated, or what could be done to avoid a similar fate as those towns. The same can be said about the trajectory of the energy crisis as it unfolded. In it lies key insights into what caused the energy crisis, what could have been done, what should have been done and what must now be done to draw us out of this protracted calamity.


A water crisis is hardly anything like an energy crisis as far as its impact on our daily lives goes. Water shortages are bound to accelerate the spread of diseases. Hospitals, as we have seen on numerous occasions at the Rahima Moosa Hospital in Johannesburg, risk threatening the lives of patients rather than fulfilling their mandate. Water-reliant businesses will be dealt a hard blow by the double whammy that is no electricity and water – which could only lead to further job losses. 


Perhaps those who experienced the water restrictions imposed upon them during the 2017 drought might know well enough the extent of disaster caused by water interruptions. Having to drastically reduce water usage is no easy task – many of us consume far more than we might imagine. Loadshedding is something many might have been able to adapt to, but water restrictions have proven cumbersome for everyone affected.


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From the energy crisis and previous droughts, we learn that a larger-scale water crisis and its consequences are avoidable, if only proper action is taken as demanded by present circumstances. We also learn that depending upon the current regime to fix the problem which, one may argue, they themselves have caused would make us complicit in an eventual water crisis.


What is required is active citizenship to ensure infrastructure (whatever is left of it) is maintained, demand that infrastructure is upgraded and those responsible for its deterioration are held liable for their incompetence. An additional responsibility upon us is to use water responsibly. There is currently a fierce blame-game at play, which could serve only to worsen the situation. There are lessons to be learnt and inspired action to be taken.


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