Saturday, 16 October 2010

When the water runs out

Blog Action Day 2010 has come and gone but the issue of the day is one important enough to keep talking about: Water. Water is a huge issue in South Africa. This may be a middle-income country where crime and inefficiency top absolute poverty on the 'things-to-worry-about' list, but water is (or at least should be) of greater concern than any of the above. This is the thing about water: the amount of water in a country is not directly linked to poverty. So, while poor or missing service delivery often results in people not having access to clean drinking water, there is a larger issue here. If you live in a water-scarce country, all the money in the world isn't necessarily going to guarantee your water. Water is, quite literally, running out. Already, 1.2 billion people in the world face physical water scarcity, many of them in countries like this one.
50/50 has been talking about this problem for a long time. This past week, they dedicated almost an entire World Food Day programme to water, in an effort to highlight the fact that without clean water, we will probably also run out of food. In Johannesburg, SA's largest urban area often referred to as the 'economic powerhouse of Africa', a rising tide of acid mine water threatens to contaminate all groundwater within 18 months. Across the country, ill-maintained sewage works allow raw sewage to leak into water sources and mines and other industries pump waste into rivers with little concern for the consequences. All of this while on the other side of the country, a major drought has left parts of the Eastern Cape with almost no water for months and months.

I recently spent a year living in Korea and was repeatedly taken aback at how water is treated. Not that South Africa is all that good, as a country, at looking after our water resources, but water still has a special value here. A poor rainfall season means something different. Water-scarce countries are much closer to food insecurity even in good years - always just one rainy season away from the total devastation of a drought.  If you've never seen the rains fail, never watched as crops dry up in the fields, never seen farmers spend their savings and mortgage their last assets in a desperate bid to keep their animals alive until the next rains; if you've never waited, breathlessly, as thunderstorm after thunderstorm builds up only to blow away leaving nothing but dust; if you've never watched sheep search fields of dry grass grazed flat for a tiny bit of green or some forgotten moisture, it must be difficult to imagine a drought. Those who chose to blog about water and make conversations happen are important – more funding for water and sanitation efforts means less water-borne disease means less people (particularly children) dying - but part of this conversation also needs to be what to do when the water runs out.

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