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Life, Death, Water, and Cape Town

A city of nearly 4 million people is about to run out of water. For perspective, Cape Town’s population is approximately equal to that of Toronto and Ottawa combined. The city has already instituted emergency water rationing. Some who have mobility have left the city altogether.

Cape Town is a city of enormous economic stratification and racial tension. The poorest already struggle to survive, and violence is a normal part of daily life in the slums. In the past, riots have resulted in catastrophic damage and bloodshed. Running out of water in this environment is both an ecological and a humanitarian crisis.

What Exactly is the Water Crisis?

The worst drought in Cape Town in more than a century, lasting three years so far, has extended the water supply of the city and its surrounding neighbourhoods to its limits. The city depends primarily on the reservoirs of six dams. When the supply from the system drops to 13.5 percent capacity, the city will turn off the taps, except for essential services.

There are many factors, overlapping and compounding, that have brought about this crisis, but it is undeniable that there is significant human causation. The population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, which has increased the burden on water sources, although restrictions have been able to stabilize consumption to a degree.

Agriculture is a heavy user, with many fruit crops requiring large amounts of water for irrigation and processing. The large open reservoirs that hold the city’s water enable evaporation on a massive scale. Overdevelopment of land reduces the infiltration area for rainwater, which is needed to recharge underground aquifers.

Some blame mismanagement, but even with proper management, limited resources will run dry at some point. To guard against future unpredictability of weather conditions, combined with trends in human population and resource consumption, measures will have to be taken to increase the resilience of the water system.

One Missionary’s Perspective

In personal correspondence, Don Sayers, a missionary in Cape Town, provided the following perspective:

“[The projection is that] millions of people will simply have to queue up for water every day at yet-to-be-determined water points.  People will be allotted 25L a day (at a cost) and will have to transport it home in their own containers.  This could go on indefinitely until the dams reach 25%. The estimate is up to 6 weeks of no municipal water.  This will close many hotels, restaurants, businesses.  Unemployment will skyrocket in the city and so the water crisis will then be a food crisis.  If this happens there will be riots again, but beyond what we’ve seen in the past….The shops are sold out of water the moment it arrives so I’ve driven a couple hours outside of town and bought a couple weeks supply of water for our family.”

What Can We Do?

It may seem that there is little that we can do to help in this crisis. We cannot produce water in Cape Town’s reservoirs. We cannot prevent someone who would kill for pocket change or a cell phone from killing for food or water. For most of us—as is so often the case—we simply feel helpless to do anything. But we can pray. Saying that we can pray is not the same as actually praying, of course. What should we pray for?

  1. That God’s will be done and his name be seen as holy.
  2. That we will all realize that no matter where we live, God does not owe us exemption from famine and drought. In our TGC Canada article Evangelicals and the Environment, we suggested that ecological crises may be one way that God works to correct our hubris and call us back to himself. We tend to think that we are the masters of God’s world. As Canadians, we ought to recognize that if a city of 4 million people in South Africa can run out of water, God can also allow us to experience ecological crises. Let us be humbled.
  3. That people will learn that man does not live by bread alone. We can pray that Christians will be able to speak a word about the water of life. Water is the news in Cape Town, and conversations are happening about it all the time. There will be many opportunities to recreate Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman at the well. We know the Water of Life! The one who drinks of him will never thirst again.
  4. That we ourselves will be bold enough to speak of the Water of Life in our own land. It should not take an ecological crisis before we start pointing people to Jesus. But even here, as some people bring up the topic of Cape Town’s water crisis, we can speak a word about the living water that always satisfies.
  5. That rather than the news being filled with stories of desperation, riot, and violence, the news will be filled with stories of revival and peace. God is greater than drought, and he is greater than our sinful hearts. God brought himself great glory and accomplished the saving of many lives through Joseph’s rule during Egypt’s famine. Leaders with wisdom can limit crises. We need to pray for an outpouring of both special and common grace.

Let us pray.