by Benny van Zyl - TAU SA

Inconvenient truth sequel indeterminate future

South Africa must wake up to climate change now

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Former US vice president Al Gore’s film on the environment, “An Inconvenient Truth,” has been followed up by “An Inconvenient Sequel”, now showing at South African cinemas. There may be some who believe that the current global warming is simply another “stage” of the earth’s long history of weather changes but this is hardly consolation to those of us who may not live longer than the Bible’s “three score years and ten” attributed to a man’s average life span. Today we are witnessing dramatic climate change which is affecting all of us: farmers, businesses, property developers and population numbers.

Gore showed unambiguously in his first film the hard evidence of global warning, especially at the poles. He visited mountain tops which had been glaciers thirty years ago, and he predicted that the World Trade Center (WTC) would be flooded in the event of a storm surge on Manhattan Island. He was virtually laughed out of town! But his “Sequel” pictures of that same WTC under water a year or so ago as authorities hustled to pump water out of central Manhattan were chastening. Manhattan’s subways were also flooded causing consternation as millions of commuters stood stranded.

Gore’s info titbits were alarming: 14 of the Earth’s 15 hottest years in recorded history have been since 2001. Miami Beach’s streets are routinely flooded , and the ferocity of a Phillipine hurricane was terrifying to watch. Islands in the Pacific are disappearing as residents leave their homelands and move to safer climes, and droughts, fires and floods ravage the planet at an increasing rate.

Gore’s role at the United Nations 2015 Climate Change Conference was significant–even India and China signed up and it appeared that it was all systems go for the Conference’s signatory countries to make every effort to halt the ever-increasing rise in air and sea temperatures.

What are the facts?

"The 12 000 liter plastic tank full of water rests on the tip-up section of the construction truck which arrives to fill our rain water tank. It costs $450 for this water load. We have no piped water from the municipality and water we pipe from the river is only for the toilet, shower and the garden. September temperatures regularly hit 40 degrees and it’s not even full summer yet! We have officially been in drought for most of 2017, with only sporadic rain in April. Our rainwater tank is down to its last rung. This has never happened in our lifetimes. The ground is brown and cracked and dry. Our garden has dried up from the mercilessly hot winds. Clean drinking water is more expensive than milk.”

Is this India? Afghanistan? Egypt? No, it’s an Australian resident living in northern New South Wales near the Queensland border. In addition, bushfires are a clear and present danger, life threatening in their ferocity. In the north west of the state, the 2014 drought turned the ground into bare veld, while the Salvation Army distributed hay and food to the local farmers for their animals and for the farmers’ families themselves. Australian rainfall is more variable than rainfall in the rest of the world, so for the same level of reliability, dams in Australia need to be six times as large as those in Europe and twice as large as the world average to ensure water supply does not run out during dry seasons.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that In California, farmers have had to leave more than one million acres of farmland uncultivated because of water shortages. In the recent fires, the Napa Valley vineyards and surrounding areas were burning at temperatures of 1500 degrees. Cars and metal cellphone poles have melted. Two hundred thousand people have lost their homes and two thousand houses and buildings have been destroyed. Twenty-five people lost their lives, while others are still missing.

In January 2015, the most devastating floods in living memory ravaged Malawi, while South Africa’s 2015 drought was the worst in a hundred years. In Amman, Jordan, piped water is only provided to the city for two days of the week – the other five days see trucks bringing water to rooftop tanks for a population of more than four million.

Though water covers approximately 70% of the Earth’s surface, only a small fraction of it is available for human use. Additionally, the global stock of fresh water is unevenly distributed. Over 60% of usable fresh water supply is found in just ten countries (IMF).

By 2014, Iran was using 70% of its total fresh water, far above the upper limit of 40% recommended by scientists. The country’s rivers, wetlands and lakes are drying up. Fifteen per cent of pistachio trees have dried up in Sirjan province due to an inefficient agricultural sector and mismanagement. (Pistachio nuts are an important foreign exchange earner for Iran.) The country is spending $5 billion to restore the dried-up Lake Urmia in the north west of the country. Iran’s per capita water consumption is “nearly twice the global average, while 37 million people are at risk of dehydration.” In less than 50 years, the country has used all but 30%of its ground water supply, which took a million years to gather (Washington Post 4.3.2016).

Egypt’s capital Cairo has always had a serious problem with broken water pipes and structures. The United Nations warned in 2016 that by 2025 the country could run out of water. It already faces an annual water deficit of 7 billion cubic meters, while the country receives less than 80 mm of rainfall a year. Only 6% of the country is arable and its historical grip on the Nile river is loosening to Ethiopia and Burundi.

In June 2016 the Egyptian government’s National Research Center reported that 40% of Cairo’s residents do not get water for more than three hours a day. In Mexico, with a population of 130 million, of the 82 existing irrigation districts, 42 are in a state of slow degeneration. This dry country is heavily dependent on underground aquifers from where it draws water for 70% of its needs. Presently the rate of extraction exceeds replenishment.

And so the story continues for country after country. No one, it seems, can escape climate change.

The 2015 Paris Agreement

South Africa, together with 173 other countries, signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In a press release, the SA government said Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa signed up to an agreement that was a ”comprehensive framework to guide international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to meet all the associated challenges posed by climate change”. The press release said further that “South Africa is already acting on climate change. The country has significant investment in renewable energy, public transport, energy efficiency, waste management and restoration initiatives”.

Clearly the Conference heads recognized that not every country has equal dedication to eradicating the factors that are destroying the planet; a runaway population explosion, corruption, backward social norms, maladministration, human greed and what appears to be in some instances a blithe indifference to adjusting to higher standards in order to add to the efforts of those countries that take quality living seriously.

This recalcitrance is in the main the Achilles Heel of attaining the goals set out at the Conference: while one half of the world will try its best to conserve the planet, the other half apparently couldn’t care less: urban slums where rotting garbage and open sewage cause disease and pollution are common; beaches are piled high with ocean detritus and human effluent, while soil erosion, deforestation, poor municipal management, water wastage and water pollution result in urban and rural chaos and appear to have become a norm.

Who will call these miscreants to book? Who will police them? And in which category is South Africa?

It is an empirical fact that South Africa is in many sectors descending into third-world status.

Economically we are considered as such by those who bestowed junk status upon the country. But socially, structurally and administratively, where do we stand?

The facts speak for themselves. Much of the afore-mentioned desecration is unfortunately in Africa: it has the fastest growing urban population globally and such growth places stress on water utilities, to name but one resource. It is “widely accepted that many water supply systems on the continent are in a state of disrepair after years of under-investment and limited maintenance”. (Business Day 12.9.17)

This statement could well apply to South Africa. The following observations make for grim reading:

  • Committee members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee sitting on Water and Sanitation were informed there was no comprehensive plan covering the protection of water sources in South Africa, despite the country experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. (Beeld 21.6.17). Minister Nomvula Makonyane was supposed to lay a plan in this regard before the Committee on 20 June this year, but she wasn’t at the sitting and no plan was proffered. One committee member asked if there was at least a concept plan, but that wasn’t available. The minister’s staff member said a comprehensive plan would only be available in March 2018. Earlier in the month the same parliamentary committee demanded that the Minister give an urgent account of her “bankrupt” department where “irregular and wasteful spending amounting to R2,5 billion” occurred in the 2016/7 book year. The Minister’s head of department could not tell the committee where the money went. Legal steps are being considered against at least 500 employees of the department to account for this missing money. It was pointed out by an opposition member that in 2014 an amount of R680 million was budgeted to repair ageing water infrastructure. This has now grown to R800 million because little has been done. The member declared this matter disastrous as 4 200 million/5000 million liters of sewage-laden water is pumped daily into SA’s rivers because 84% of the country’s 600 sewage plants do not work. This state of affairs is acknowledged as the single worst polluter of the country’s water. (M & G 21.4.17)
  • Only two areas in urban Pretoria (one of which is where most of the ambassadorial corps resides) tested positive for safe drinking water. (Beeld 21.6.17). Nine other areas did not meet the required standard. Pollution in these areas ranged from 8 000 units of e.coli bacteria per 100 ml water to 15 000 units. There should be no sign of e.coli whatsoever in drinking water. (Afriforum test
  • Mining permits have been granted to an Indian company by the SA government to mine for coal in the Wakkerstroom district of Mpumalanga, a national heritage site where hundreds of millions of litres of water sit in wetlands visited by tourists from all over the world to view the area’s more than 400 bird species. In addition, this mining will inevitably pollute the underground water system which will in turn destroy farming and human settlements in the area. Citizens are using their own money to fight this government action in the courts but if they lose, this could be one of South Africa’s most serious ecological disasters. This wetland is the convergence of four important rivers, including the Vaal which supplies water to Gauteng, South Africa’s most densely populated area.
  • The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported in March 2017 that if South Africa continues with its water policies, there will be a 17% shortage of available water before 2030, just twelve years away. WWF says that by 2025, there will be such a physical shortage of water that it will cause thousands of lost jobs and concomitant serious social unrest. ”South Africa’s water crisis is not just a problem for the future, it is a problem for the here and now” said the report.
  • Polluted water in the Vaal dam was recently “spilled out” of the dam by authorities to “make it cleaner!” This was done to “thin out” pollution in the Barrage, said an official. But all this did was to send the sewage-polluted water down the river to Parys in the Free State. According to a recent government report, there are 435 000 units of e,coli bacteria per 100 ml of water in the Rietspruit River which empties into the Vaal. Local residents along the Vaal have threatened the government with legal steps for this dangerous negligence.
  • Many of South Africa’s 274 municipalities are “under administration”. (This means those in charge cannot run them efficiently.). The stories of chaotic municipal service delivery in South Africa are legendary. In October of this year SA’s professional association of civil engineers issued a damning report on state-run infrastructure, saying it is not coping with demand and it is likely that the public will be subjected to, inter alia, serious danger unless prompt action is now taken. The association places much of the blame on inefficient and corrupt municipalities.
  • The engineers said further that, with a few exceptions, every segment of the work of the state is bedeviled by poor planning, a lack of skills and capacity, corruption, neglect and poor maintenance. The institute’s greatest concern was the lack of maintenance of vital installations.
  • Hundreds of productive commercial farms were handed over to beneficiaries of the government’s land reform program resulting in the farms being used as either weekend retreats or degenerating into squatter camps. The number of farms still being successfully managed and making a profit without outside help is virtually nil.
  • Millions of illegal immigrants from Africa and even the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia have entered South Africa without permission and have settled in scores of squatter camps surrounding the country’s cities. In many camps there is no sanitation or clean drinking water, no toilets or piped water for household use. Electricity is stolen from paying citizens. Health and living standards have deteriorated drastically. The environment has been desecrated.
  • Government’s signing of international environment agreements is no compensation for the destruction of a country through government neglect, corruption and indifference to the needs of the citizenry.
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