Nature & Environment People & Society

It’s time to bring our planet back from the brink

The coastal paradise of 4 million on the southern tip of South Africa, Cape Town, is to become the first modern major city in the world to completely run dry. And even though residents aren’t responsible, the burden of making sure it doesn’t happen rests largely on our ability to cut down on water usage.

I was routinely checking my messages on my mobile in the morning. There was a video clip in my WhatsApp on impending water crisis in Cape Town, a top international tourist destination. I was perturbed after watching it. I was hearing for a few months about the crisis but I never thought it could be of such magnitude! In 10 weeks engineers will turn off water for a million homes as this South African city reacts to one-in-384-year drought. At this critical level – currently forecast for April 16, “the Day Zero” – piped supply will be deemed to have failed and the city will dispatch teams of engineers to close the valves to about a million homes – 75 percent of the city. In place of piped water, the city will establish 200 water collection points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres per person per day within 200 metres of every citizen’s home.

It’s imperative to focus on how to prevent the health of our planet from failing. This is not “doom and gloom” – the risk is real. Cape Town’s water shortage isn’t just because of climate change – although that certainly could be making the drought worse, experts say. The severe drought in the South African city didn’t happen overnight, though. More than half of the city’s water comes from a reservoir at the Theewaterskloof dam, but water levels have dropped severely due to low rainfall over the last three years. Drone footage of January 11 shows Theewaterskloof dam is just 16 percent full (2016: 36 percent)! South Africa gets rains in winter. People are waiting for April, when the rain generally starts there, and are praying for good rainfall this year.

The drought is a timely reminder of the need to decouple economic growth from resource exploitation and environmental degradation. A productive, diverse natural world and a stable climate have been the basic assets at the foundation of the success of our civilisation, and will continue to be so in future. A fundamental issue in the previous technological revolutions has been the lightness with which we have taken for granted the natural environment rather than valuing it as a condition necessary to development.

Theewaterskloof dam
Theewaterskloof dam (Image courtesy: Sunday Times)

Marco Lambertini, Director-General, WWF International said in the annual meeting of World Economic Forum that the challenge and opportunity before us today is to begin to think of development through the lens of environmental health. The environment is a primary concern, not an afterthought. As we continue to connect in new ways, we must also reconnect to Earth. The undeniable truth is that we continue to do great damage to the planet, and that we haven’t learned how to grow our economy without harming nature. Alongside the technological revolution, we need an equally unprecedented cultural revolution in the way we connect with the planet.

If we continue to produce, consume and power our lives the way we do right now, forests, oceans and weather systems will be overwhelmed and collapse. Unsustainable agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure projects, mining and energy are leading to unprecedented biodiversity loss and habitat degradation, overexploitation, pollution and climate change. While their impacts are increasingly evident in the natural world, the consequences on people and businesses are real too.

Every day, new evidence of our unsustainable impact on the environment is emerging. A destabilized climate generates more frequent and deadly extreme weather. Conserving forests, the ocean and wildlife is in everyone’s interest for sustainability and our own prosperity. That’s why now is the time for businesses, governments, institutions and civil society to work together to halt climate change and the devastation of nature. Costs of sustainable developmental interventions may be higher at the outset. But what will the costs be of not preparing adequately? And who will bear these costs?

Technology will no doubt change our lives and we are already seeing breakthroughs in conservation. The renewable energy revolution is probably the most impressive example of the positive impact of new technologies.

Financial institutions have a huge role to play. The banking sector at large is failing to redirect financial flows away from environmentally and socially destructive business practices, and importantly not yet tapping into growth opportunities needed to finance the transition to a sustainable economy, whether they are renewable energy or sustainable water projects.

As the effects of climate change worsen and our planet’s resources come under increasing strain, sustainability issues will increasingly hit companies’ bottom lines as well as their social license to operate. Protecting land, oceans, rivers, forests and communities not only helps mitigate risks in the supply chain, but makes perfect business sense.

P.S. As per Reuters, Cape Town has pushed back its estimate for “Day Zero,” when residents will have to start queuing for water, to May 11 from April 16, authorities said on Monday, February 5, 2018, citing a decline in agricultural water usage.

18 comments

  1. This is a scary situation. Industrial development has mostly been at the cost of environmental degradation.
    It is ridiculous when people refuse to comply with environmental guidelines. Recently a Niti Aayog report has pointed out that Himalayan Mountain springs are drying up, for which corrective actions are needed.

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  2. Yes, situation in South Asia is also getting grim. Scientific evidence shows that most glaciers in Hindu Kush Himalayan region are retreating. Social changes such as changing patterns of water use and water management decisions, are likely to have at least as much of an impact on water demand as environmental factors do on water supply. Many of the region’s river basins are already water stressed, and this water stress could intensify as populations grow.

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  3. Who will bell the cat? Governments and people have abdicated more and more power to the business corporation. Unfortunately, conservation is in direct conflict with the goals of any corporation. Anyway it is someone in the future who will be affected. I will probably make it through. So why should I care, except when someone is watching?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Quite succintly written . Agreed, the situation is bad. However,lets do our bit. I keep a constant watch in my house for running taps and glowing bulbs ( both power and water consumption affect the environment). Same at my office.

    Liked by 1 person

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