“Everywhere else in the world, cities are based on rivers, except in South Africa,” says Anthony Turton. Picture: Itumeleng English/ANA

Tony Turton has a messianic gleam in his eyes. He’s an academic turned a corporate adviser but an activist, more strictly a water evangelist, to the core. His Gospel is simple: South Africa’s in crisis – but there’s hope.

“In my personal opinion, what we’re seeing is the Titanic (the 1912 maritime disaster) has struck the iceberg. It’s inevitable that the Titanic will sink, but at the moment it’s still floating.”

The only way to avert the disaster, he says, is for people to start speaking honestly - and changing the way they think about water.

Turton is sharing his pulpit with Fred Platt, the chief executive of Accentuate who is leading the business charge to get Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to establish a water war room.

It’s Tuesday in Pretoria, and they’re briefing the assembled journalists through the National Press Club.

“Water is far too serious a matter to leave to politicians,” says Platt. “I haven’t seen the activism that there should be.”

Like much of the rest of the country, he speaks of the deputy president as if Ramaphosa was already president of the country and not embroiled in a drawn out, knife-edge, tug-of-war to get the incumbent Jacob Zuma to step down and avoid the much reported two centres of power.

“Cyril Ramaphosa is the face of South Arica to the world and the negative perception of Day Zero (the day the City of Cape Town will turn off the taps) is incredible.

“We’ve known for 40 years this would happen, the reality is that we are not taking things seriously enough. Stop pointing fingers.”

Environmental adviser Dr Anthony Turton briefing media about the water crisis.
Environmental adviser Dr Anthony Turton briefing media about the water crisis. Picture: Bongani Shilulbane/ANA

In truth there has been so much finger pointing, people are in danger of getting repetitive stress injuries, with the Democratic Alliance, which runs both the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape province, almost imploding as premier Helen Zille appears to have thrown mayor Patricia de Lille under the bus, only for party leader Mmusi Maimane do the same thing to do Zille.

Day Zero - April 16 - was pushed back to May 11 on Monday thanks to farmers apparently who have been using less water. Provincial dam levels are at 23.7% this week, almost an entire percentage point drop from last week - and much lower than last year’s level of 36.5%.

There isn’t agreement on Day Zero though, Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane doesn’t believe there is such a term.

“It’s not us who have said there is Day Zero. We do not understand how some people somewhere decided to talk of Day Zero. It is not us“ she told the house’s portfolio committee on water and sanitation on Wednesday.

She’s not alone. Her cabinet counterpart, Des “Weekend Special” van Rooyen, speaking as minister of co-operative governance, says the term is unscientific. He believes it’s open to ambiguity. He does say though that a national disaster will be declared next Wednesday, Valentine’s Day.

The Northern Cape, Western Cape and the Eastern Cape have already done so provincially. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Nazier Paulsen on the other hand believes Cape Town’s water crisis is exaggerated and inhumane, fear-mongering among the most vulnerable.

Mokonyane tells the committee the water crisis, exacerbated by a three-year drought across the country, is because too much water was used with too little control. Managing the demand properly will alleviate the crisis.

The committee appears to agree. It’s concerned about the fact that the department only manages 330 of the country’s 5000 dams and that 65% of the water goes to agriculture with only 23% being used for domestic consumption.

The fact that water released by Western Cape farmers on Tuesday into the Cape Town system has been regarded as a gift has particularly enervated them.

It’s probably the only thing that she and Turton will agree on - that water is not a commodity but a resource - that should be managed for the good of all.

Turton is adamant, though, that government is part of its mismanagement.

“The Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority at the Department of Water and Sanitation ran the whole process of finding tenders for Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (which supplies Gauteng with its water).

It should have been on stream by 2019,” he says, “but will now only happen in 2025 because the minister insisted on a "transformed company" being awarded the tender, a company that is being investigated for criminal activities.

“The same thing happened in Cape Town. The city ran its own process. There’s a desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront and then, out of the blue, the minister writes to the premier to say Umgeni Water will do it, even though a KZN-based utility has no jurisdiction in the Cape.

Cracked earth on the surface of the dried up Meulspruit Dam.
“Water is far too serious a matter to leave to politicians,” says Fred Platt. Picture: Itumeleng English/ANA

Behind the scenes, Dudu Myeni (the former chair of South African Airways) is in the mix.

“There’s been an unnecessary politicisation of the crisis. When the house of cards falls as it must (speaking of Zuma’s recall), those who are linked will go too as part of the collateral damage.”

For Turton the problem begins with Thomas Baines, the explorer and geographer whose exploration into the arid Northern Cape and discovery of a society of missionaries living successfully thanks to water furrows diverting water from the Vaal.

“Between John Brown’s two books: The Aridity of the Cape and Hydrology of South Africa and Baines wanting to make the desert bloom, we have the paradigm of water scarcity in this country, designed on pushing rivers around.

“Everywhere else in the world, cities are based on rivers, except in South Africa.”

Turton wants to change the narrative: water isn’t scarce, there’s plenty. The paradigm of scarcity is premised on the concept that water is a stock, but water is actually infinitely renewable, he says.

“There’s the same amount of water on earth as there was when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, but us arrogant humans, we’ve pushed these rivers around.

“We live in a water scarce environment, we have to manage what we have, but we have gone way beyond that, now we are having a wake-up call.”

For a start, he says, there has to be an end to the absurdity where individual users pay more than bulk users, so there’s no incentive for the people who use most to actually cut consumption. Then, as Platt says, there’s the illogicality of using scarce drinking water to flush toilets and ageing water reticulation systems in cities that are forever breaking down, spilling even more precious potable water.

“Water security is a terribly complex issue; water in the dam today is not necessarily water in the tap tomorrow,” says Turton.

His answer is a Marshall Plan, like the one the Allies used after World War 2, to rebuild, rejuvenate the water reticulation networks across the country, creating thousands of jobs and kick-starting industry.

The biggest revelation will be to reuse the water that we have, like Perth does in Australia, creating a two-pipe system, with two price structures - supplying business and individual users with drinking water and recycled water, because there’s more than enough if we are prepared to use it.

There is no other alternative in his eyes. Between the failure of municipal sewage plants and the legacy of acid mine drainage on the Vaal, 65% of South Africa’s economy, Gauteng is now insecure, water that should be in reserve in the Lesotho Highlands for times of drought is being wasted to pump into the Vaal to reduce the high saline levels.

There’s no future for coastal cities such as Richard’s Bay, Durban, East London or Port Elizabeth without desalination plants, he says, “because they’re at the bottom end of rivers that have been sucked dry, just leaving the muck”.

The good news is that South Africa doesn’t have to look overseas for solutions, local firms are already hard at work but being bedevilled by bureaucracy, political point-scoring and in-fighting.

“If people are squabbling about the cost of infrastructure now, what is the cost of the loss of confidence, the job losses (when the water supply runs dry)?” Turton asks.

The other great risk, says Platt, is the typical South African situation where the haves make a plan and the have-nots just suffer.

“We mustn’t go the same way as we have done when things have failed, we have tended to contract out; police, private security; state education, private schools; health, medical aids.

“The provision of water is a basic human enabler that should be beyond politics.

Nothing is possible without water. It’s the ultimate rallying point, but if we’re not careful it will ultimately divide us.”

As the press conference draws to an end, Platt pipes up, he’s just checked his smartphone; the office of the deputy president has acknowledged receipt of his request for a war room.

* Anthony Turton will be joined by Dr Jeunesse Park, Simon Gear and Dr Clive Lipchin at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre  in Johannesburg on Tuesday. For more information call Hazel on 0117288088 or e-mail [email protected]

Saturday Star