Water crisis: How did we get here?

Namibia faces an ecological crisis, unlike any other in living memory. The frightening fact that we are running out of water – and fast – should be sufficient cause for us all to sit up and pay attention.

Let us take stock of some of the salient and shocking facts that emerged this week: The three central dams that supply Windhoek and Okahandja are nearly depleted and currently hold only 11.1% of their capacity (Swakoppoort 10%, Von Bach Dam 20.5% and Omatako Dam 2.3%).

Goreangab Dam is 97.5% full, but due to excessive pollution the water is now utterly unfit for human consumption. Windhoek needs an estimated 33 million cubic metres (Mm3) of water a year, but faces a deficit of 15.7 Mm3.



This dire situation is manifesting itself to a lesser or greater degree throughout the country. In destitute places like Uis, children have taken to begging for water from passersby. Who will accept responsibility for this situation?

Some will argue that here in the Namib we are always at the mercy of the vicissitudes of nature, in that we cannot prevent extreme natural events such as droughts, floods, and ecological disasters that result from a warming planet and changing climate.

But it would appear that we do bear some responsibility for the current crisis. To some extent the problems we face are largely man-made. They result from a failure to plan, a failure to think ahead and act when we had the information, the time and the resources to do so.

We also heard this week that at least N$24 billion is needed to augment the water supply countrywide. However, only N$255 million is available for water supply projects in the country between this year and 2019.

Older readers will recall that shortly after its establishment in 1996 NamWater partly explained away its steep tariff increases on the basis that it would use the funds to construct a desalination plant at the coast. Some 20 years – and many price hikes – later the public is surely justified in asking: where is that plant?

The City of Windhoek says it now has only two supply options to meet the 15.7 Mm3 shortfall: a) abstract and pump water from the Okavango River to the central parts, or b) desalinate water and pump it from the coast. The obvious problem though is that the expected time to complete such a project is between eight and ten years!

It would not be unreasonable to ask of the experts and officials in charge of water management when they actually realised that those were the only two options. Did they realise it yesterday? We assume not.

If the experts have known this for many years, why did they not do anything well in advance to prepare for the inevitable droughts and foreseeable water shortages with which the country has historically struggled?

The current water crisis is the clearest example of a man-made disaster, of a massive failure of logic and imagination, of misplaced priorities and wastage, of the mortal threat that mediocre and insufficient planning poses to the life of the people and future of the country.

The Harambee plan has as one of its key targets the provision of potable water to 100% of the population. It is hard to see how Namibia will achieve this ambitious target with the same nonchalant outlook and the same people that led us to the brink of catastrophe in charge of our precious water resources.

One does not need to be an expert to know that securing an adequate water supply is a matter of the highest priority. After all, every child knows that water is life and without it civilisation must collapse.

It can no longer be business as usual.

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