Good news for the people of Cape Town: "Day Zero," when South Africa's second most-populated city is expected to run out of water has been pushed back. But it's only a very temporary reprieve. The city is now expected to go waterless — and confront all the chaos that it implies — on July 9 rather than June 4 as previously expected.
Admittedly, residents deserve praise for their efforts to drastically reduce water consumption — by more than half compared to four years ago. But given the forces at play in nature, and in conjunction with climate change, there's only so much the people of Cape Town can do. After four years of below average rainfall, the city's reservoirs are nearly depleted. Images of the Theewaterskloof Dam, which looks more like a desert these days, offer a glimpse of just how critical the situation is.
There's only so much the people of Cape Town can do.
Cape Town may be the world's first major city to run out of water, but it's not the only one facing serious shortages. On the other side of the Atlantic, São Paulo has been in a water crisis of its own for several years now, and though things have slightly improved since the problem peaked in 2015, water levels in the city's reservoirs are still well below what they used to be.
In Brazil's capital, Brasilia, a water rationing program had to be put in place last year after the local authorities declared a state of emergency. Under that program, the vast majority of residents have water only six days a week.
In neighboring Colombia, observers warn that rationing measures might be necessary in the capital Bogotá as early as next year. Some critics say it's a technical problem stemming from delays in construction projects that were supposed to improve water supplies to the high-altitude (2,640 meters above sea level) metropolis. But in a recent column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, writer Juan Pablo Ruiz Soto points instead to deforestation in the Amazon basin.
The rainforest, he writes, "plays a crucial role in the regulation of our continent's climate, especially on rainfall, the water cycle, both inside the rainforest and its periphery." The deforestation taking place there, he adds, is affecting both São Paulo and Bogotá, though not at the same time nor with the same intensity. "São Paulo is already experiencing these effects and Bogotá might experience them in a not so distant future," Ruiz Soto argues.
Scientist agree that the rainforest is able to retain water and distribute it across the continent via so-called "flying rivers," and that deforestation has drastically reduced this capacity. Worse, the Amazonian region is now being hit by a severe drought. That, in turn, is causing vast wildfires, which are destroying such vast areas of forest, as well as producing so much CO2 that, according to a recent report from Folha de S. Paulo, the drought could be as bad for the overall climate as deforestation itself.
Worse, the Amazonian region is now being hit by a severe drought.
Sadly, politicians in South Africa, Brazil, and just about everywhere else, for that matter, are failing to rise to the challenge, as noted in a recent article in The Washington Post. Two years ago, at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, leaders from 195 countries reached an historic deal to cut emissions. And yet, as "modest" as their pledges were, countries are "falling short anyway," reporters Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney conclude. "In short, the world is off target."
Water rationing only goes so far as to delay the coming disasters. Avoiding them from happening altogether, if that's even possible, may take more than nice words and empty promises.