Water is Life, but Water is Scarce.

By Fr Christopher Chatteris SJ

Today is International Water Day. Fr Rampeoane Hlobo, the Provincial’s Delegate for the Social Apostolate and Environmental Justice, has sent this article “Water is Life, but Water is Scarce”, written by Fr. Christopher Chatteris, S.J., so that we might remember this day with greater conscientiousness. 

Johannesburg is now a city experiencing water cuts as well as power cuts. In my neighbourhood there is a Whatsapp group for the power crisis and one for the water crisis. I notice that on the water group there is a much higher levels of anxiety and frustration. This is not surprising since one can survive a lot longer without electricity than without water.

The news from the local government is not reassuring, namely that Rand Water is, on average, unable to provide for the average consumption of the city due to massive leakage problems and the present electricity loadshedding which hinders pumping operations. This reminds us that Johannesburg, in a sense should not exist because it has no major river to supply it with water. The City of Gold has been able, like oil-rich gulf states, to afford to import water from elsewhere, from distant parts of the country and even from another country (Lesotho).

The Joburg situation is not unique. Rather, it is being reproduced in smaller urban centres all over this dry country. The fact is that if we did not have all the dams, boreholes and complex reticulation systems in our country, we would not be able to support a fraction of the present population. And yet, the consciousness of this perilous situation meets much denial. We would like to use water as if we were living on the banks of Lake Malawi (7% of the world’s freshwater) or Lake Baikal (23%).

We are not living there, and nor are vast numbers of people throughout Africa who also experience periodic drought and continual water insecurity. We cannot aspire to use water as if we were Canadians.

We have to be sparing and careful, for the sake of the common good – the short shower, dealing with our South African obsession with the clean car, repairing running taps and toilets! The good news, however, is precisely that this crisis reminds us to consider others in the challenge to share this humble but infinitely precious gift of God’s creation. If we do not cooperate, we will all go thirsty.

What to do? Apart from our own efforts at limiting our consumption for the sake of the common good, we need to hold our political leaders and their officials to account. It is unconscionable that the systems which deliver water, something so essential to a dignified life, indeed to life itself, should become degraded by neglect and corruption. Not only should the leaks be fixed, but planning for new infrastructure must be undertaken to provide for an expanding population in an era of global heating.

Administrations which are mediocre and merely reactive must be replaced by administrations which are professional and proactive. The stakes are simply too high. The most competent people should be tasked with running this essential service. We do not permit political appointees to fly our planes or perform heart operations, so why would we allow political appointees to oversee the supply of our water, water which is life?

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