Fossil Fuels and The Water Cycle – What it means for us as Africans

The water crisis affecting millions of people around the world is directly and inevitably linked to steadily-worsening climate change. In South Africa this means more Day Zero’s and a future of uncertainty. This is highly unlikely to be a once off event, and we would do well to learn from the experience of Brazil and other water stressed countries.

Whether we actually face Day Zero or are saved by the rain, the Cape Town water crisis has created enough of a stir internationally to make people realise just how bad the global situation around water is. As the world’s biggest water-related event – the World Water Forum – kicks off in Brazil this month, with participants turning their thoughts to the theme of sharing water, it is imperative to acknowledge first, what’s brought us to the brink of this slowly-unfolding global disaster.

The situation that Cape Town faced is just another extreme example of a problem that experts around the world have long warned against. NearlyMore than one billion people in the world do not have access to clean, safe drinking water and another 2.7 billion have a shortage of water for at least one month each year. Future projections are not optimistic either. According to the United Nations, the global demand for fresh water will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, thanks to a combination of climate change, human action and population growth. As predicted by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), two-thirds of the world’s population will face severe water shortages in only 20 years. This is already happening in countries such as Somalia and South Sudan that are affected by civil strife largely because of water shortages.

In most parts of the world, the water situation is already compromised by the inadequate management and poor treatment of this scarce natural resource by local governments, and the negligence of industrial users, particularly those in the agribusiness, mining and fossil fuels sectors. Not only do they use up vast quantities of clean water, they often pump out highly-toxic effluents that can contaminate rivers and underground aquifers. Now, as climate change affects precipitation patterns across the planet, several previously ‘safe’ regions find themselves at risk of severe drought.

By compromising water availability, desertification affects not only the consumption of potable water, but also reduces agricultural productivity, which in turn threatens food security. In countries like Brazil, that rely on hydroelectric power, another easily-overlooked consequence of the drought will be the cyclical impact on the power supply. With the reservoirs of the hydroelectric dams empty, the Brazilian government is forced to fire up the fossil-fueled thermal plants. These thermal plants, in turn, need a lot of water to cool the machines. Thus, in addition to paying more for the energy used in their homes, the population also sees the little water they have left being consumed by the thermoelectric plants.
This is the case of the Pecém Industrial and Port Complex, in Ceará, Brazil. Pecém I and II are the two largest coal-fired thermoelectric plants in the country and are authorized by the state government to collect up to 800 liters of water per second (or 70 million liters per day) from the Castanhão Water Supply, which could supply a city of 600 thousand inhabitants.

The largest public reservoir in Brazil for multiple uses, Castanhão is usually responsible for supplying the entire metropolitan region of Fortaleza, where almost half of the state’s population lives. Having reached its dead volume last November, the reservoir has stopped supplying the capital of Ceará for about 10 days, until the minimum volume of 173.34 million cubic meters of water was restored. In South Africa, a similar situation could emerge, with the banks like the Development Bank of Southern Africa wanting to fund the building of a new coal fired power station in Lephalale, Limpopo – an already water stressed region.

These are not isolated cases limited to the more obviously arid parts of the world. A 2014 survey of the world’s 500 largest cities estimates that one in four are in a state of water stress. The financial capital of Brazil and one of the 10 most populous cities in the world, São Paulo went through a calamity situation similar to Cape Town in 2015, when the Cantareira, its main reservoir, was below 4% of its capacity. The water crisis was considered finished in 2016, but in January 2017 the main reserves were 15% lower than expected for the period, bringing up questions once again around the future of water supply in the city.
And yet, despite these repeated reminders, governments continue to allow the exploitation of precious water reserves; worse, for the very industries that further contribute to climate change.

The Guarani Aquifer, located under the territories of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, is the main freshwater reserve in South America and one of the largest underground systems in the world. The aquifer has been constantly threatened by cross-border exploratory activities such as fracking, for the extraction of shale gas. Producing 50 quadrillion liters of water per year, it has the capacity to supply 400 million people. Recent news reports have also raised a new alarm: the government of Brazil is allegedly in negotiations with Coca Cola and Nestle for privatisation of this vital natural resource, with reports suggesting the companies might receive contractual concessions lasting over a hundred years.

In addition to all the socio-environmental impact, and precisely because they are vulnerable and finite, the limited sources of drinking water have already caused serious geopolitical disputes. In Chad, Lake Chad – possibly one of the worst water related crises globally – has shrunk to one-twentieth of its size 40 years ago, fuelling conflict between Nigeria and Cameroon. Without a radical change of behaviour, and of policy at every level of governance, the wars for access to this valuable resource will be unavoidable.

The need for change is as imperative as it is overdue: we must break the cycle of environmental damage being caused by the fossil fuel industry, introduce strict governance on common resources – not just water, but land, forest cover and air as well – and secure instead a more sustainable future that puts renewable energy in the hands of communities. The solution to the water crisis will come from the same source as the solution to other environmental crises – people power!

By Glen Tyler, South Africa Team Leader, 350Africa


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