When the Tap Runs Dry: Resource Scarcity and the Case for Resource Management

Posted Feb 12, 2018 | Blog Post

Happy 2018 readers! Turning a New Leaf is back for a new year with new topics, adventures and perspectives on environmental sustainability and innovative farming! To kick things off, we have a special blog post this week from Alexandre Parrott-Mautner, a writing contributor from Global Conversations, the Munk School of Global Affairs newspaper, who takes a look at the countdown to “Day Zero,” the day Cape Town, South Africa, runs out of water.


Resource scarcity causes destabilizing effects at political, social, and individual levels. Cape Town, South Africa is a case in point. The city’s current predicament offers a reminder of the importance of resource management and an opportunity to learn how to do so effectively. As May 11, 2018, or “Day Zero” approaches, the people of Cape Town have been asking what it means to live in a city without water.


On this day, local dams are expected to fall below 13 per cent and taps will run dry. Individuals in the city will then have to travel to one of 200 local collection points for water, where they will be limited to 25 litres of water per person per day. While Patricia de Lille, the city’s mayor, has requested assistance from the national government, she has not received any additional funding to manage the crisis.


To date, South Africans use roughly 250 litres of water per person per day. This amount is high, but not as high as Canadians who regularly use approximately 430 litres per person per day. This number also includes consumption for agriculture, packaging, and energy consumption, which are often not associated with water usage.


Whether or not the situation in Cape Town is due to misaligned funding, missed warning signs, three consecutive dry rainy seasons or failing and/or failed relations between the local government run by the Democratic Alliance and the national government headed by the African National Congress is not important. With increasing global temperatures, dry spells will become more frequent, leaving mitigation tactics as our only hope to counteract this threat.


Data shows that droughts like the one in Cape Town don’t happen very often; another one isn’t expected in the next 200 to 500 years. But this fact can give governments a false sense of security, leading them not to prepare for such rare but disastrous events. Water scarcity will have a major impact on economies and migration, making it a global problem.


With a reduced water supply, Cape Town will likely see a reduction in both human and agricultural efficiency, as individuals will be forced to spend time waiting in lines to collect water, and the agriculture sector will be forced to use less water on crops. It is projected that 5,000 people will visit each water station to collect their daily allotted ration. This decrease in efficiency will become the new normal as global temperatures continue to rise, and extreme weather events become less and less novel.


The World Bank estimates that water scarcity will cause GDP decreases of up to six per cent by 2050 in key regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Other sources estimate that countries close to the equator will become unliveable by the year 2100, forcing people to migrate to parts of the world where temperatures remain bearable.


Migration due to scarcity of resources will become a reality. In South Africa, where the population has jumped over 80 per cent since the mid-1990s, there will be little room to grow if there is no access to basic necessities such as water. This will be true around the world.


The World Bank’s Global Risk Report 2017 highlights some of the major risks the world faces in the coming years. Water crises are among the top 10 risk factors for development impact. Not only will water push people out of certain regions, it will also cause conflicts between and within regions, such as that in South Sudan. A 2016 report by the World Bank similarly highlights the role that increased food prices from a lack of agricultural activity in areas hit by drought will play in regional instability.


In five months, Toronto, Canada, will host the first international summit on Water Scarcity from June 19-20, 2018. This summit will be coupled with the release of a new journal, titled Water Security, that will focus on issues of water scarcity and water shortages around the world. We can only hope that crises such as the one in Cape Town will not be overlooked as learning opportunities for other countries.


In fact, Australia has already implemented a cap and trade system on water supplies, and changed water availability depending on certain variables such as rainfall shortages and drought. This has given the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) the ability to effectively monitor water levels, set prices, and ensure the enforcement of water limits while also ensuring access to available resources.


Countries like Australia have already taken the lead in implementing water management practices. Governments around the world must now take notice. We may be tempted to blame politics for the crisis in Cape Town, but the truth of the matter is that without forward-looking policies on resource scarcity the politics won’t matter.


Either we choose to consume less water and plan strategically now, or that choice will be made for us in the future.

Author: Alexandre Parrott-Mautner

Alexandre Parrott-Mautner is a graduate from York University in Toronto and current Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs. During his time there, he focused on politics, law and human rights. Alex is interested in Aboriginal affairs, climate change policy and the relationship between the economy and the environment. 

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Randal Leau