Cape Town, South Africa, may soon be the world’s first major city to run out of water. On what the city has dubbed “Day Zero,” now slated for July 15, all homes and most businesses in the city of four million will be cut off from running water.
Despite longstanding animosity between Jerusalem and Pretoria, the ruling ANC party is open to help from the Jewish state, said Israeli researcher Dr. Clive Lipchin, who attended a water symposium in Johannesburg last month.
“Everyone is open to hearing solutions from whatever country it comes from,” said Lipchin, the director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management, Arava Institute, and lecturer in environment and conflict management at Tel Aviv University. “I was invited as an Israeli to sit at a panel. ANC government officials who addressed me from the audience said they were happy to look at Israel as a model,” Lipchin said.
Efforts to conserve water and stave off the apocalyptic-sounding Day Zero are having some success, pushing back the expected date from April to mid-July, but there is a consensus that it is close to unavoidable, Lipchin said. Today, restaurants are using disposable plates and utensils, hotels are removing bath plugs from their rooms and filling their pools with seawater, and residents are recycling shower water to flush their toilets and using sanitizer to wash their hands instead of the sink. Several South African pop artists have released a playlist of two-minute songs for residents to time their showers and the city released an online calculator for residents to estimate their daily usage.
When the day comes, Capetonians will have to wait at one of roughly 200 collection points around the city to receive their daily ration of 25 liters, or 6.5 gallons, of water per day. For comparison, the average American family uses about 300 gallons per day. Each collection point would service roughly 20,000 people daily, and it is unclear how security forces will maintain order and safety.
A perfect storm of drought, population growth and poor planning caused the crisis, said Lipchin, who grew up in South Africa. The area is in the midst of a three-year drought, likely influenced by climate change, and the population has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, further stressing the water supply. The city was also overly reliant on reservoirs fed by rainwater, instead of using aquifers or desalination, which made it vulnerable to drought.
Israeli technology may be particularly useful to Cape Town. Israel, with its arid climate and lack of freshwater, faced a years-long drought in the mid-to-late 2000s, depleting its natural freshwater stocks. The government addressed the crisis with an aggressive program to decrease household and agricultural usage, recycle and reuse wastewater and increase supply with desalination. Israel now, improbably, has more water than it needs.
Israel’s success with desalination could be a possible solution to Cape Town’s long-term water problems.
“Israel is a model for how that can be done in a very efficient way. We operate five of the world’s largest desalination plants and we do it very efficiently,” Lipchin said.
Israel and South Africa are also alike in their inequality, both economically and in water supply. Neglected South African townships and Israeli Bedouin communities both struggle with access to clean drinking water.
“Israel is particularly well-placed to help with this relative to other countries. They have to find solutions for the Bedouin and Palestinians and getting the Negev water,” said South African environmentalist Benji Shulman. “Both are first world countries with a lot of poverty and inequality.”
Accepting help from Israel is controversial, though. Relations between the two countries have been rocky in recent years. South African authorities have threatened to prosecute South Africans serving in the IDF and downgrade Israel’s embassy in the country, hosted Hamas leaders, and accused Israel of apartheid at the UN. A Johannesburg conference focusing on the water crisis was canceled due to Israeli participation in 2016.
“There’s been a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment expressed around it,” said Darren Bergman, one of two Jewish members of parliament in South Africa, citing conspiracy rumors tying the water crisis to Jewish interests. “It’s all around the Western Cape,” he said.
Members of the country’s governing ANC have accused Bergman’s Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party which governs the Western Cape province and Cape Town, of fabricating the water crisis to benefit Jews.
“Now that there is a drought there’s a narrative that’s stating that it’s actually a man-made problem, that there’s actually enough water but it’s the Zionists’ way of making Israel relevant again in South Africa,” Bergman said.
One mass WhatsApp message Bergman received and forwarded to The Times of Israel reads: “There is NO water crisis! Day zero is a Zionist plot planned by the DA Zionists,” and “they kept quiet about this and pushed for the desalination plants as the only solution. They have been using scaremongering and by laws [sic] to create a water ‘crisis.’ The ‘created’ drought is a Zionist plot to control Cape Towns [sic] water supply and profit from it.”
“We don’t know where it started but it’s from a host of WhatsApp messages, these rumors,” Bergman said.
His party, the Democratic Alliance, is open to solutions wherever they may come from, he said. The party is in control of the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, while the ANC is the leading party nationally. There is a dispute over which party is responsible for supplying the city water, further stressing the political tension between the two parties, Bergman said.
“If Day Zero comes it will affect everyone regardless of color, regardless of race, regardless of religion,” Bergman said. “Everyone that doesn’t put the interests of the people first, you need to question what their motives are.”
South Africa is also a stronghold of the BDS movement — the push for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel over its relationship with the Palestinians — which has been endorsed by the ANC. The group has discouraged South African artists, such as Cape Town’s Die Antwoord, from performing in Israel, interrupted pro-Israel speakers in South Africa and tried to deter academic cooperation between the countries. An op-ed in the leading Johannesburg newspaper Mail & Guardian rejected the use of Israeli technology to alleviate the crisis and ascribed Israel’s abundance of water to oppression of the Palestinians.
“The ruling party in South Africa, the ANC, always is nervous to deal with Israel in public. They often will work with Israel behind the scenes,” Shulman said. “Because the BDS is noisy, it’s not really that powerful but shouts a lot, people get nervous.”
The controversy, though, has made people on the ground more aware of Israel’s prowess in water technology, said Shulman, who works with the Jewish National Fund of South Africa and organized last month’s symposium in Johannesburg. He has seen a marked increase in social media discussions on Israel, he said, and estimates having read 40 to 50 articles on Israel’s connection to the crisis in the last year. The topic regularly gets attention on South African radio and TV also.
How did Israel go from being a water scarce country to having more water than they could ever need? @Devi_HQ looks at Israel’s large-scale #desalination plants and asks: can the rest of the world learn from this ingenuity? #CarteBlanche Sun 7pm pic.twitter.com/by5LgI12B6
— Carte Blanche (@carteblanchetv) January 11, 2018
BDS is an issue, but among the general public there seems to be a growing interest in Israeli technology, he said.
“People know about Israel in South Africa for a variety of reasons but this controversy has upped the engagement. A lot of people are talking about it,” Shulman said. “What’s been powerful about this crisis is that people having this fear of dying of thirst — it’s overcoming this fear of the political environment. People don’t care where it comes from; they want a solution.”
ANC officials are open to cooperation with Israel, Lipchin said. The obstacles to cooperation are bureaucratic, business-related and financial, not the result of a government boycott, and sources saying the South African government spurned Israel’s help are incorrect, he said.
“We’re starting to see politicians come out,” Shulman said. “I think it will be a slow process.”
Julius Malema, the leader of the opposition political party the Economic Free Fighters, for example, has accused Israel of apartheid in the past but recently discussed considering Israeli solutions to the crisis, telling journalists “they are saying that in Israel, where there is generally a lack of water, they created water out of nothing and that they can create water in Cape Town. Let’s see if it is real,” according to the South African Jewish Report.
During the symposium in Johannesburg last month, Lipchin, said he had no problems as an Israeli researcher in South Africa, including among ANC representatives.
“Nowhere once was the issue of Israel raised at all. Everyone is open to hearing solutions from whatever country it comes from,” Lipchin said.
He believes that, at some point, Israeli companies will sell technology to Cape Town, and and hopes the technology will eventually help supply water to both metropolitan South Africa and impoverished townships.