'You are not alone in this drought, we have a world of Cape Towns' – environment activist

Cape Town, along with several cities across the world, is facing crippling droughts, but it is not water that Capetonians should worry about – it is waste water, suggested a world-renowned environment activist.

"We have cities across the world – from South America all the way across Asia, including Beijing – that are fast running out of water, so you are not alone", said Sunita Narain, director general of the New Deli-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), at a keynote plenary on Wednesday at the Water Institute of Southern Africa's (WISA) biennial conference in Cape Town.

Narain, who was included in Time's list of 100 Most Influential People in 2016, has been with CSE the since 1982 where she has been pushing for climate justice.

More from WISA 2018

She said the problem of the paradigm of water and waste management needed to be addressed before the scarcity of water can be dealt with.

"We are too comfortable in discussing water scarcity and the need for the augmentation without deep-diving into some of the key reasons we are facing these challenges – which include rapid urbanisation and climate change."

About 80% of the water that leaves our homes is waste water, said Narain.

"We don't consume water in urban or industrial areas. Consumption takes place in agriculture. We excrete water. We discharge water."

Narain said this was a clear example that we should change the way we manage waste.

"We don't think about the waste system as much as we worry about the water systems.

"The current system brings in water and takes back waste."

She said the opportunity and challenge was to take back waste water to clean, treat, recycle and reuse it.

The Achilles heel of water management

"The waste system, that is the Achilles heel of all our water management systems. We are polluting water and therefore increasing the costs of cleaning it."

Commenting on climate change, Narain said it was manifesting through more extreme and variable weather events, which is compounded by the mismanagement of our natural resources.

"So what you have then is the end result of increasing water scarcity, increasing pollution of our rivers, floods and of course the combined health challenge.

"In South Africa, you have the issue of El Niño. In India, we have the issue of El Niño along with the western disturbances of the winds that comes over the Mediterranean and hit us."

She said India was already experiencing the devastation of this.

"Whoever thought that the warming of the Arctic is going to see dust storms in northern India? Fifty dust storms have hit us... killing 500 people."

Narain also warned South Africa about floods in the time of drought.

"We are beginning to see intense rainfall to the point where you see average annual rainfall in a matter of a few days or hours. This extreme rain event is also changing the nature of rain and it requires us to change the way we deal with water management."

She recommended that government plans deliberately to hold water where it falls.

"We need to plan for excess and we need to plan for scarcity. That is really what climate change is doing."

Narain said research gathered by the CSE found that the intensity and frequency of such extreme rainfalls in India has been surging.

Cape Town has managed to starve off Day Zero in 2018. The City attributed this partly to increasing dam levels owing to fruitful rains recently, following three years of low rainfall.

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