Politics: a feeble bridge over troubled waters?

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Water, water nowhere, not even a drop to drink. Cape Town in the midst of drought is about to cut off its taps, the first city to do this. Above, a pedestrian bridge over a dry dam

AS CAPE TOWN’S Day Zero approaches when the taps will be switched off, you hear South African Jews declaring smugly how different things might have turned out if politics had not prevented using Israel’s water technology. South Africa and Israel are both arid regions requiring innovation to avoid running dry. But punting Israeli technology is a distraction rather than a solution.

Until 2011, the University of Johannesburg and Ben Gurion University of the Negev conducted research together on water reclamation. That year, UJ severed the cooperation under pressure from anti-Israel groups such as BDS, which gloated: “Palestinians, South Africans and the international academic and solidarity community rejoice at this decisive victory.”

The lessons about Cape Town’s water crisis don’t only lie in technology. German desalination plants are as good as Israel’s. The lessons are political. Former World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin was ominously correct when he said in 1995, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”

In the Middle East, your security depends on having a reliable, adequate water source. Water scarcity is one of the greatest triggers for political tension. Syria and Jordan depend on some of the same water sources as Israel. Palestinians complain of insufficient water and accuse Israel of using it for political control.

Israel is justifiably proud of its victory over its water problem; the country is two-thirds arid, but achieved a situation a few years ago where Israelis could take long showers, water their gardens, and farmers had adequate water for crops. The country spent $4.3 billion on its national water grid and sewage treatment centres, and the commercial sector invested roughly $2 billion on five desalination plants. Exporting water to other countries became a possibility.

Israel reclaims 87 percent of its wastewater, which is purified and reused for agriculture. Singapore, second on the list, reclaims 35 percent, and most countries less than 10%.

Israel is not immune to water crises. Four years of drought are now testing its capacity. The Sea of Galilee is forecast this year to hit its lowest level ever, before winter rains are expected to raise it; underground aquifers are approaching levels that will turn them salty. There are planned cuts to water use for the coming year of more than 50 percent in some areas. Constructing another desalination plant and new reservoirs to catch rain and flood waters is under discussion.

South Africans, who are so embroiled in their daily political scandals, need to sit up and take serious note. Cape Town’s water crisis is not a one-off incident. Southern Africa is an arid region, and unless long term planning is done, a similar catastrophe could happen in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and elsewhere and bring the country to its knees. Or the whole region.

Years of sleazy politics under Jacob Zuma almost destroyed South Africa’s economy and reduced millions more people to poverty and unemployment, while the ANC allowed him and his cronies to fill their pockets from the public purse.

The irony is that corruption and incompetency under the ANC, as bad as it is, may not be the greatest threat to this country. It may be water: Who has access to it, and who doesn’t. In the elitist world of people like Zuma, he will always have it, alongside his fancy cars; the poor people in the townships, however, will lack it.

To be a loyal South African doesn’t mean promoting Israeli technology. That is a red herring. It means demanding that there is planning in this country for potentially catastrophic problems such as water. Wouldn’t it be tragic if it was water scarcity that ended up destroying everything Mandela and his generation fought for?

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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