Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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