Water - Going, going, gone

All dried up: Gaborone Dam failed in 2016 for only the second time in its life
All dried up: Gaborone Dam failed in 2016 for only the second time in its life

One of the top priorities for the pre-independence dikgosi was water, unsurprising because so little was available with the country being routinely described as arid and prone to drought.

Despite this year’s promising rain, we should still expect, with climate change, increased drought with sustained torrential rain and floods on the one hand, and no rain the next. We have to understand that whilst our water situation has always been serious, it is bound to get a great deal worse, very rapidly. But that is not how we see it. Forget that the Gaborone Dam has twice been dry in its short life; because dams everywhere now have water.
The trouble is that diamond money has left us in a dream world where we can drift along, content and convinced that money can buy anything, even water. Is it not so? Provide enough cash and the new dams are constructed in the north and two, north-south pipelines put in place at great cost to provide water for Serowe, Palapye and Mahalapye and the Greater Gaborone region, Mochudi, Molepolole, Kanye, Ramotswa and Tlokweng. What happens when that population doubles and this supply no longer suffices, partly because so much in the dams is lost through evaporation? Bring in water from Chobe or Lesotho perhaps by bringing it in by heavy-duty water trains to Gaborone just as it might be thought that desalinated seawater could be brought in the same way on the new line from Walvis Bay?

The alternative is miles and miles of piping with more water lost through leaks than actually arrives. It’s all a bit desperate, isn’t it? As for the idea, apparently approved, of getting water from Lesotho, that idea is surely for the birds – unless water balloons are tried but a drone or two will quickly put paid to the idea.

So, isn’t it time that we start doing something about saving what water we now have? Undoubtedly yes, but there is nothing to indicate from the public or the government that there is any such awareness. Take Gaborone’s ever-increasing volume of sewage water, which is little used. If we really are a knowledge-based society, why have we not thought or done something about it? It is water, after all. But take subsidies. My understanding is that the urban areas subsidise the rural areas and that the government not only subsidises itself but that it then refuses to pay Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) for what it has used. This, in turn, means that the government is required to increase its subsidy to the WUC to make up the shortfall. Totally dotty, of course. But then I am unsure whether Greater Gaborone is now classified as urban or rural?

The further need for subsidies is to know what elements are included and not? In other words, do subsidies cover all the costs or only some of them? Are replacement costs factored in or are these carried over to some time in the diamond-less future? All this must mean that we have adopted a water credit system, which is fine until the day comes when there is no more water available as seems to be happening with the dying or dead Tati River and Victoria Falls today and maybe the Okavango tomorrow! This, unsurprisingly, will mean that everything or everybody that uses water will be in trouble, that includes, the Law Courts, government ministries, institutions, hospitals and schools, businesses and parastatals all of which were brought into existence in the years of supposed water plenty. It will be back to the long drop for everyone. Too harsh? Too exaggerated?

Consider the jo-jo. In the pre-independence years, many of the schools had gutters and metal jo-jos, as with those householders who had modernised homes. Today, gutters have gone out of fashion. Can you remember when you last saw one? Maybe it’s because house owners today don’t want them, maybe because architects don’t include them or maybe because a design for a house without gutters is endlessly replicated. In contrast, there are jo-jos everywhere, not least in low-cost areas.

Unlike those long-ago days, the jo-jo today is not there to store free rainwater from a roof. They are placed close to the road so that they can be easily topped up with purchased water. None have a hole designed to take a pipe from a gutter. The conclusion is devastatingly obvious. Given a choice between free water and paid-for water, everyone has opted for the latter for the very simple reason that water is so cheap that there is no need for people to give themselves even a modicum of a free supply. And it is cheap because it is wildly over subsidised. Were people expected to pay a realistic cost, they would change their attitude very fast.

Change, though, can usually be effected only slowly but there are preliminary steps that can be taken right now. A stop should be put on the importation of baths and everywhere, where possible, baths should be phased out and showers installed. Only golf courses, which use brown water should be given a license. The new one planned for the Kgale area, which can only use clean water, should be disapproved. The law should treat vandals who break pipes, and those who steal power cables with the same severity as those who steal goats i.e 10 years in jail. Car [waterbased] washing should be stopped. Solar power should be more regularly used to desalinate water. Every institution, every major building should have a plumber on its payroll. As of now, the most easily locally available plumber is likely to be a Zimbabwean. How is this to be explained?

There is a need to see sector by sector how it uses (and wastes) water and how this can be reduced maybe with more suitable technologies. Making a distant parastatal responsible for water is no longer a tenable arrangement. It has to come under the Office of the President with a Minister solely for responsible for water. He/she and their permanent secretaries should be held to account for all costs related to unnecessary wastage and have these costs deducted from their salaries. Why hit people at the bottom end of the social scale but not those at the top? Water is life and death serious. And the country and government have to start showing that it does indeed understand that is not just an arid, drought-prone country.

It is one which is living way beyond its means, as far as water is concerned. Were we to start thinking about the next 10 years, we would be taking the water issue with a much greater sense of urgency than we do now. Without water, there can be nothing.

Editor's Comment
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