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Drought warning should put us on war footing

May 08 2017 05:00
Mandi Smallhorne*

LAST coupla weeks in the news: Professor Chris Malikane said South Africans had to suffer for radical economic transformation, à la Venezuela and the success story to the north of us; Ivanka got showed up at a panel in Berlin alongside Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde; Zuma said being booed was a sign of a maturing democracy.

Oh, and this: “ENSO-neutral conditions are favored to continue through at least the late Northern Hemisphere spring 2017, with increasing chances for El Niño development by late summer and fall…”

That is to say, by late winter and spring in our half of the world.

Once you’ve read that, how can you think any of the Zuma/Trump/Brexit/Gupta merry-go-round of news stories deserve a smidgeon of attention? THIS is news, gasping-for-breath news.

Just in case you spent the last two years in a Trappist retreat, may I remind you that El Nino almost inevitably means poor rainfall for us, unless there is “sufficient groundwater and soil moisture content carried over from previous seasons”. I think most of us would agree that the heavy rains of the truncated late summer season in our summer rainfall area were not enough to restore soil moisture content.

By some heroic efforts on the part of our summer rainfall farmers, which included a significant expansion of the land farmed, we have managed to harvest a maize crop in 2017 which is 40% above what we need. So obviously, we’ll be putting some aside for coming non-rainy days, right?

Well. Maybe. "'Yes, we are thinking about it,' Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana told Reuters … when asked if a grain reserve was being considered”. (It seems less viable when you tot up the open-market price, storage costs and admin – and reach a total of around R6bn, according to Tinashe Kapuya, Head: International Trade and Investment Intelligence, The Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), University of Pretoria).

What other strategies do our overlords have for confronting the possibility of long-term drought conditions in this region? I can’t really tell you, because they haven’t confided much in the general public. At Cabinet level, a sense of urgency is completely missing – if you search the statements on the last four Cabinet meetings, the word ‘drought’ only occurs in contexts where government is patting itself on the back for providing money for boreholes and distributing animal feed, or celebrating the impressive maize crop.

There was a media release about the National Disaster Management Advisory Forum (NDMAF) which met in Centurion on Wednesday, March 29 (it’s due to meet again on May11). The head of the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) who also chairs the Forum, Dr Mmaphaka Tau, does at least seem to have some sense of alarm, imploring provincial disaster management heads to plug away at “risk reduction, mitigation planning and water conservation interventions”. But then this note in conclusion:

By September 2016, the National Treasury approved the following financial allocations:

  • An amount of R212 million for the provision of livestock feed within Agriculture sector
  • An amount of R341 million for the water sector for a mobile desalination plant in Kwazulu Natal and water tankering in other affected provinces.

These are the only details I can find around what’s being done in my brief search. There may be more. If there is, why are government not telling us? This is of urgent concern to every citizen.

And if this is the kind of planning we’re budgeting for, it’s just not enough. A few hundred million for what are essentially stopgap measures – keep the stock alive, deliver water? Of course these things are necessary, but we need to think long-term, we need to create a real shift in how we do things.

C’mon, at this juncture we should engage our best and most creative minds in every field – ongoing drought conditions will affect everyone, from medics to ad agency execs. We need to kind of jump the shark – to play around with even the craziest and most far-fetched of ideas, look hard at anything that might ensure future water supply. Ideas like fog-collecting nets along the West Coast, perhaps (already proven in places like the Atacama Desert).

A few less-than-crazy thoughts: are we fixing leaks? “According to a 2017 GreenCape market intelligence report, 37% of South Africa’s water supply is lost through leaks across many cities.”

Next: this is where our water comes from - we must protect these sources from threats such as mining and industrial pollution at all costs.

How do we encourage soil-building, rather than soil destruction, through regenerative agriculture? As drought conditions continue, our little remaining topsoil (which helps dampen flooding and soaks water up, improving the water table) is at risk. Are we researching crops that not only need less water, but also result in less pollutant damage to water resources?

Every rooftop should be a rainwater harvesting resource – how about putting a few hundred million towards subsidising that?

Grey water should also be harvested on a city-wide scale – perhaps to use for supporting urban agriculture.

How about engaging the local advertising industry and top communicators to create public benefit messaging that explains the risks, our water-conserving goals as a country and what each of us can do to achieve them?

This is a genuine crisis that should put us on that proverbial ‘war footing’. But we’re cursed with terrible leadership. We - civil society - are going to have to force them to focus on what really matters.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion  |  water  |  drought
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