A Water Article

Here’s an article I wrote for the Peace Corps South Africa newsletter about water. Yes, water. Slightly edited, of course, to protect innocent Peace Corps Volunteers:

In 1995, a World Bank Vice President, Ismail Serageldin stated, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” A few years later, in 2000, Fortune Magazine echoed Serageldin in an article covering the private water utility industry: “Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”

While neither prediction has yet proved true, much of the world now faces a future where a supply of water is not guaranteed. According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people already live in areas where demand for water outstrips supply and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Additionally, another 1.6 billion people live in areas where inadequate infrastructure prevents available water from being delivered.

Even the United States faces a number of water supply crises. Phoenix and Las Vegas are short water, and El Paso, San Antonio, and Albuquerque could potentially completely run out of water within the next 20 years. California and central Florida are both nearing the point where they will begin to deplete water sources at a faster rate than they naturally replenish. Even suburbs around rainy Seattle estimate water demand will outstrip supply by 2020.

The situation here in Africa is more dire. One-third of Africans already lack access to clean drinking water, and as water supplies dwindle this number could increase. According to the World Wildlife Fund, half of Africa’s population will face water supply issues by 2025. Many African water sources cross international borders, making warfare a potential answer to shortages—as long ago as 1991, Egypt stated it was prepared to use force to defend its access to the waters of the Nile river.

Thankfully, South Africa’s economic might and strong constitution mean the water situation here is brighter than much of the rest of the continent. By 2010, 84% of South Africans had access to piped water, and in many areas everyone is entitled to a small amount of water free of charge. But this does not mean South Africa is without water challenges. Gauteng Province is almost entirely dependent on an arrangement with Lesotho to provide water. South Africa has utilized more of its available water resources—about 80%—than any other country in the world, and this in turn has created ecological problems that threaten the water supply. A large need for irrigation means many rivers, including the once mighty Limpopo, now run dry at least part of the year. The well-developed mining industry’s reliance on large quantities of toxic chemicals is also a major threat to water supplies. And as many Peace Corps Volunteers can tell you, just because there is infrastructure does not mean there is always water flowing.

Chad White is a Volunteer in KwaZulu-Natal, hours away from the coastal bustle of Durban. His water comes from a communal, manual pump. But sometimes the pump goes out for a days at a time, and an alternative water source is necessary.  “When there’s not water available a truck comes into the village,” he explains. “It’s pretty crazy…people will see the truck coming and it will stop and word spreads around the village pretty quickly because it’s a small village and everyone comes out with a bucket. They stay until everyone has filled up the buckets they want to fill.” His is not the only local village dependent on trucked water, as Mr. White explains: “[The truck] serves a couple villages in the area. My village is the last stop it makes. It stops in every village because it’s guaranteed to be clean, healthy drinking water because it’s provided by the government.”

Trucked water is not an uncommon solution in South Africa, and many other South African Volunteers have water trucks making occasional or even regular appearances at their site. But sometimes there is not a truck, and water collection must be undertaken individually. Danny Smith is another volunteer in KwaZulu-Natal, in a town on the side of a mountain near the Mozambique border. There is a water pipe at Smith’s site, and there are also handpumps, but sometimes both sources run dry. When Mr. Smith first arrived, water required a journey. “…We were driving 20km to a pump station at the base of the mountain and we would fill up water there.” His community also uses rainwater to supplement their water supply, collecting it in water tanks. Those who lack personal tanks, “…put their bathbuckets at the edge of the roof and collect water.”

Volunteers White and Smith both live on mountains, and this affects their water availability. But sometimes the water supply is at the mercy of forces more fickle than gravity. Megan Hand is a PCV in Limpopo, outside of Tzaneen. Ms. Hand has three different sources of water she regularly utilizes. Her primary source of water is a hose tapped into public pipes and run to the family property. Unfortunately, this hose only provides water during the rainy season. Ms. Hand explains: “When I first moved in, we had no water for September, October, and November, my host mom said we had to wait for the rainy season.” But even once the rains started, the hose only worked about once a month. Her neighbors have a natural spring that bubbles up when there is rain, but in the absence of rain the nearest source is a kilometer away. According to Hand, “They charge 50 cents for 25 liters. You wheelbarrow it.”

But perhaps hauling water is unnecessary. According to Ms. Hand’s host family, a spat between villages is what causes the hose to run dry. As her host mother explained to Ms. Hand: “There’s always water in the mountains and the reason we don’t get water is because of the men in the village between us and the mountain. The men in that village turn off our water as part of a fight.” What the fight is over remains unexplained.

Fortunately, Peace Corps policy requires good access to water so none of us face water problems that could threaten our well being. Hopefully such easy access to water will continue to be the norm for us and for our South African friends and neighbors.