From California to Cape Town: Something to Think about on World Environment Day
What do the Western Cape in South Africa and the state of California in the United States have in common? One, they were both home to indigenous people who were marginalized by the forces of colonialism and imperialism. Two, these outsiders developed ‘neo-European’ settlements that followed the logics, interests and loves of Europeans. Three, when things proved to be ‘not quite right’ – i.e. that the soils were different or the rainfall patterns rain counter to European sensibilities – nature was ‘harnessed’ via a combination of capital and technology – to accommodate European ideas of what it meant to be civilized. Four, over time, these rich coastal settlements grew into massive conurbations whose hinterlands became thriving agicultural areas. The response to pressures for more resources – for more land for cities and crops; for more water for people and crops – was a dramatic altering of the natural landscape. Five, humans in both environments came to live apart from, rather than as part of their natural environment. Bimodal rainfall regimes, where there is one distinct wet and one distinct dry season, were compensated for through massive hydraulic works. Land unsuited for agriculture was now home to several crops per year due to the combination of artificial fertilizer and advances in groundwater pumping and systems of irrigation. And millions of people lived at rivers’ end, along the coast, dependent upon water pumped over hundreds of kilometres, up and down and sometimes through mountain ranges, right into their own homes.
California has done a better job of ensuring enough water for all, partly due to the success of the imperial/colonial enterprise. Unlike the American west, where native Americans died out in vast numbers often due to disease carried to them by white settlers, in South Africa, indigneous Africans suffered no such large-scale extermination. Rather, they were ‘corralled’ into homelands and townships, only later to break these shackles of oppression and return – in the millions – to cities such as Cape Town where settler infrastructure was ill-prepared for the needs of one and all. Nevertheless, while the scale is different, there are common racial and class specific effects of drought and flood in both the Western Cape and California. If you are African-American or Mexican-American you are just as likely to suffer the negative effects of extreme events as are poor indigenous Africans in the Western Cape while those richer and most often lighter in skin color suffer very little: so, this is the six common point of comparison.
Seven, in both of these regions, where drought and flood are ‘normal’ meteorological events, neither the Cape nor California is fully prepared to cope with their negative impacts. California has just come out of a multi-year drought. The Western Cape has suffered an extreme drought this year and is about to come out of it in a dramatic way, as a monster cold front makes its way toward the south-western tip of the African continent. What did California learn from its multi-year drought? What systems have been put in place to cope with the next ‘big one’? Sure, a few laws have been passed and people have learned about how water is used where and by whom for what end. But I would venture to say, the disaster reduction response is not sufficient to prepare California for the next big drought. Worse is the Western Cape. In Cape Town, climate change policies and programs have focused heavily on carbon-neutral energy production and flood preparedness. What of drought? Another dam? Heightening the walls of existing dams? Where water management devices have been installed, they are where the need is greatest but access worst: in the townships, among the squatter settlements. Meanwhile, like California, the wealthy shower both themselves and their plants at will, while big agriculture continues apace, tapping groundwater where no surface water is available. This is not planning for the next big one. This is simply hoping to wait it out, all the while praying for rain. In my view, praying for rain is not an appropriate water management strategy. I have my own opinions as to why business as usual continues, but you the reader should wonder why, in places with money, technology and know how, the action plan is to get on your knees and pray. Happy world environment day!