Everyone In Cape Town Who Needs Water, Raise Your Hand
Bono, the vocalist in legendary rock band U2, claims that Cape Town, South Africa is his favorite city. This is reported by a friend who knows. It is also my friend’s favorite city, and mine.
On or about April 12, Cape Town will wake up in the morning, turn on its water taps and the city will be dry. No water for coffee. No water for the morning shower. No water for washing clothes. No water to top off the swimming pool.
A city of nearly four million people, Cape Town is the size of Los Angeles. Because of persistent drought and a rising population over the last three decades, the city has consumed its entire water aquifer.
This is unprecedented, the first time a modern city may perish.
This is not new news. Officials have been predicting the slow draining of Cape Town’s water supply for years. New dams were built. New reservoirs begun. Some of these projects are unfinished, some abandoned.
The thorny irony is that Cape Town was founded because of its fresh water supply. On the western side of the southernmost tip of the African continent, seafarers like Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and present day mariners stopped in the peaceful bay to take on fresh water from the springs bubbling from nearby Table Mountain.
A small community developed and sea captains stopped there to take on fresh supplies and let their sailors party. They partied once they blew through the Cape from the East because they did not die on the voyage. And they partied before they rounded the Cape of Good Hope from the West because they knew they might.
Cape Town is a celebration of human survival, persistence and folly. If you have not been to Cape Town, think of San Francisco Bay. You can stand on one side of the Bay and see the other. Dolphins can be seen arcing their back or leaping out of the water, sometimes in the hundreds. There are whales.
Like Alcatraz, there is a penal island also easily seen from the city named Robben Island, where Nelson Mandala was imprisoned.
“Robben” is the Dutch word for seal.
Visitors who drive South to the Cape find baboons and penguins. A few hours to the north are lions, elephants and Africa. Vineyards were founded in the 16th century by colonial Dutch, Spanish, French and Italians, and they produce incredible wines.
“The City of Cape Town will shut off the water supply to taps when dams reach a collective level of 13.5 percent,” the city reported last week. A spirited city with a wired society, April 12 has been hash tagged #DayZero.
Human beings have always had a push-pull relationship with Earth’s climate. Archaeologists can point to cities and civilizations that found a valley, stayed there, exhausted its resources, then abandoned it. Machu Picchu, Mesa Verde and ancient cities in the Mideast are examples of places that exhausted their natural resources.
Thanks to Industrial Age engineering, technology and other factors (including damming and diverting distant rivers), the modern Metropolis quenches itself at will. But sometimes technology cannot keep up with demand. Since the end of white minority rule in 1994, Cape Town population has soared by some 80 percent, straining municipal infrastructure.
Human beings can go for weeks without food, but survive only three or four days without water.
Far away people in far away places, for some. But other cities should take heed. Cape Town may be the canary in the coal mine, and suffers not only from technological glitching, but from disbelief. Because this event is unprecedented in modern times, the people of Cape Town stumble through daily life as if some deus ex machina will tumble out of the sky and save them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, metropolises have been warned about too much water — rising tides and melting glaciers — and the likelihood of being submerged a la Atlantis. There have been precious few official efforts to stave off disaster, even though New York City, for example, was flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
It is Summer in Cape Town and temperatures roar into the 80’s during the day. Visitors dine on the balcony at Bukhara overlooking Church Street and treat themselves to amazing Indian food. The wind blows off the Indian Ocean and collides with the Atlantic in crashing waves. Surfers duck through the rolling surf, skimming the water with their fingertips. Baboons howl from the branches.
Somewhere in the distance, Bono hums to himself.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.