The Global Water Crisis and South African Culture

Mad Max: Fury Road, which starred South African actress Charlize Theron and was filmed in Namibia, was the most critically  acclaimed  science fiction film of the 2010s. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, the Mad Max film depicts a future where water has become such a scarce commodity that marauding gangs will commit any atrocity for a drop of the liquid gold. As the despicable, Donald Trump like, warlord Immortan Joe tells his horde of parched followers “Do not my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence”.

Unfortunately, the catastrophic absence of clean water is not limited to fiction. Global warming, pollution, habitat loss and poor infrastructure make water scarcity a growing problem throughout the world.  Many countries and cities are facing a future of limited water access which in turn has terrifying implications for all aspects of life, from health care to food production. South Africa is already badly affected by water scarcity. Most famously, Cape Town almost became the first modern city to run out of water in a panic named ‘Day Zero’. But this was just the culmination of a brutal national drought, where many rural communities were already facing limited- and in some cases- even no water access. The drought has had a cascade of terrible effects, hitting poor and marginalised people the hardest and escalating racial and gender inequality.

More recently, there have been ominous warnings of a Johannesburg ‘Day Zero’. Joburg is unusual, as it is a major city built far from any natural water source therefore making it dependent on a distant network of dams. But climate change, infrastructure failings and government maladministration mean that Joburg may experience major water shortages sooner rather than later.  Academic and journalist Crispian Olver, who extensively covered the DA’s incompetent handling of the Cape Town water crisis predicts:

Jo’burg has no water resources other than the poisoned water underground. The only way you’re going to be able to manage it is by cutting water consumption; the demand-side management stuff. If push comes to shove, I think they’re going to wheel out exactly the same strategy. So they’ll re-hire Tony Leon’s Resolve Communications, and they’re going to frighten the bejesus out of us until we stop using water. There’s some uncanny resemblance to what happened in Cape Town.

Photograph Courtesy of Mad Max Fury Road

But while there are many ways individuals can reduce water consumption, it’s misleading to suggest that we are all in the same boat. Big industrial users and the super-rich, who consume the largest amounts of water, are far more prepared for water shortages than poor and working people who use far less.  Already, South Africa is seeing the emergence of a ‘borehole bourgeoise’ of people who can afford private water access.

Water resources are also actively squandered within South African culture.  As art historian Jonathan Cane writes in his book Civilising Grass: The Art of The Lawn on The South African Highveld, “the wealthier parts of Joburg are full of verdant green laws which despite looking lush are environmental disasters. Based on colonial ideals of taming the African landscape, these artificial spaces devour scare water resources and push out indigenous plant life. In essence, the manicured landscapes betray a refusal to acknowledge that South Africa is a semi-arid region in which water needs to be valued and used sparingly”

Water scarcity is not, therefore, just a question of technology or governance but of culture and social justice. Do we want to live in a country where dry shack settlements and townships are next to golf courses and gated estates where the lawns are always watered, no matter the cost? Or do we want water to be a vehicle and resource of common good?

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