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Irma points to stormy times ahead as SA's water shortage deepens

Sep 10 2017 18:45
Mandi Smallhorne

A satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma nearing the eastern Caribbean. (NOAA via AP)

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BY THE time you read this, Hurricane Irma will have done her worst, and we’ll have a better idea of the impact of Mexico’s 8.4 magnitude earthquake.

Irma is a consequence of warming oceans. Waters at over 26.5° Celsius provide the energy that turns a storm into a hurricane. Warming oceans have created higher levels of energy, pouring the energy into fewer but faster, more powerful hurricanes.

"… over the past 30 years, storm speeds have increased on average by 1.3 meters per second - or 3 miles per hour - and there were 6.1 fewer storms than there would have been if land and water temperatures had remained constant. ‘It's basically a tradeoff between frequency and intensity,’ [Professor Jim] Elsner said."

So fewer hurricanes – but bigger, bolder, badder. Africa gets the occasional hurricane too (we call them cyclones, and they’re typhoons in the north Pacific; were there any stories about Typhoon Hato battering Hong Kong two weeks ago?).

Changing climate brings them closer to South Africa: “Studies over the past half century in southern Africa show that there’s been a southward shift in tropical cyclones in the region, and in particular the location of their landfall.”

Of course, our seas are warming too; the 27°C isotherm (contour line in the sea where this temperature is experienced) has shifted by fully 178 km in 19 years, changing the type of fish species in the region: “…data spanning multiple decades from coastal localities off south-eastern South Africa […] demonstrate increases in the abundance of warmer-water species and decreases in cooler-water species coincident with local warming temperatures.”

Knysna has 100 days of water left

But while Irma follows Harvey in dumping way too much water on the Caribbean and North America, we in South Africa have too little. Word is that Knysna has a hundred days of water left; Mayor Patricia de Lille says Cape Town has little more – the city may run out in December, high holiday season.

The rest of the country can’t afford to be smug. “In the summer rainfall regions, the arrival of the first rains is likely to become more unpredictable and occur later than at present, but with more intensity”.

Another couple of months of dust and itchy skin then, ah me.

We’ve always been a dry country, but in the last year or so, as predicted, water has become a serious concern. However, our Glorious Leaders (of whatever ilk, EFF, DA or ANC) don’t seem to be paying particular attention.

Where is the political will to tackle this? Where is the statesman or -woman spearheading the drive to ensure we save and preserve water? Now would seem a good time to me for political leadership to put the country on the equivalent of a war footage.

Why is it not regulation, in every municipality, that every new development should have mandatory water harvesting? Why is government not punting and subsidising water tanks for existing houses and buildings? Where’s the communications campaign to show-and-tell people how to use grey water? And what about leaks?

Close to where I live and work, there are two houses I walk past every day, both of which have clear leaks around their water meters. (I’ve reported them, of course.) The patches of brilliant green show up beautifully in the Highveld at this time of year – wouldn’t this be a good time to send out a small army of sharp-eyed people (or even drones, for goodness sake) to spot potential leaks?

Let's push for no-water toilets

One of the biggest water hogs is the flush toilet. Forget bricks in the cistern: this country should get behind low-water or no-water toilets for new developments and subsidise equipment to divert grey water to old flush toilets. We need a real drive, led by real, inspired leaders, to help people understand why this is better than the traditional flush toilet.

And how about getting people to use water rather than toilet paper? Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but manufacturing and then flushing toilet paper uses huge quantities of water; switching to inexpensive handheld bidets could save huge quantities.

Every policy, every decision, should be informed by climate change considerations – water issues as well as the potential for coastal and inland floods as rainstorms intensify.

Government at national and local levels should be investing heavily in relevant science and technology – research as well as education. There are sharp young minds out there, minds that might help us engineer solutions to this problem, but they’re being lost to us because our education system is failing us.

Communities should be government’s partners in strategising and taking action on climate change. There are huge opportunities in planning for and fighting climate change, and they’re not just economic (although that is true; clever and actionable ideas will prove highly marketable), they’re also about creating societal cohesion, bringing people together in pursuit of these critical goals.

Since the lead is unlikely to come from a government mired in state capture and concerned only about its own infighting and issues that look decidedly petty when stacked up against climate change impacts, civil society needs to lead: business, relevant NGOs and communities need to partner to drive this campaign.

Irma and the Western Cape drought is the sort of thing that happens when (as the meme goes) Mother Nature says: “Right, hold my beer”. She can make politics seem pretty petty. This is damn serious, people. It’s time for action.

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