H2O and Electricity: Which is the Most Precious of the Two?

If you live in an affluent country situated in the global north, then you most likely have never had to ponder which resource is the most important to your daily life: electricity or water.

No electricity means there are no lights, heater or fan; you cannot charge your phone, tablet or computer (or your car if it is of the electric variety); you cannot use your card to pay for things at the shop (unless you carry money around); and you cannot get any work done depending on what it is you do every day. Even traffic becomes more of a nightmare when traffic lights stop functioning and drivers seem to throw caution into the wind even more than usual.

On the other hand, if you don’t have water, your life comes to a standstill in other important ways. If you don’t have bottled water at hand (and there comes a time when even stores run out of those), you don’t have water to drink. You cannot shower, bathe or wash your hands, cook or wash the dishes. There is no flushing the toilet (unless you have a swimming pool and can make use of that water).

South Africa is one of those diverse states that could be classified as a global north country on a good day and a global south country on a bad one. These days, the latter seems to be the most fitting description for the country in the southern-most point of Africa. Not only is the country experiencing political and economic crises but electricity and water problems are abound. Sometimes it seems that the question of which resource is the most essential to life is a weekly one.

The Electricity Issue

A common joke in South Africa (in a reversal of what would be a “normal” one): What did South Africans use before candles?

The answer: electricity.

The extent of electricity problems in South Africa, however, is not a joking matter. The electricity crisis South Africa is experiencing is marring investment opportunities and further economic expansion.

Due to poor maintenance and an increase in electricity demand, the country went through a long period in 2008 when blackouts (or the politically correct term, load shedding) were implemented. The situation was so dire that the government even confessed to it having an electricity emergency, something quite embarrassing considering the country is the powerhouse of Africa as it supplies power to its neighboring states. During this period of time, load shedding occurred for two to five hours at a time and sometimes two to three times per day, depending in which area you lived. Even the mining industry came to a halt for four days. While four days may not seem like a significant period of time, the economic consequences of such a shutdown aren’t insignificant.

Thereafter, the situation seemed to improve with the occasional blackout, mainly due to maintenance. Hope was short-lived.

In November 2014, things took a turn for the worst. Eskom, the only national energy supplier in the country, was again unable to meet demand and struggled to keep the lights on. Blackouts were again rolled out. Lost output became the norm for factories and mines, and foreign investors threatened to pull out.

This situation where load shedding is part of the daily lives of South Africans will continue for the next three to four years. Lights will be on during the warm months, while they will be turned off during the cold months as demand for power increases. With regard to electricity, there is not a lot worse than not being able to have a hot cup of tea on a cold, heater-less night.

The Water Issue

Low rain levels and an increase in water demand as a result of more people migrating to urban cities have led to one of the most severe droughts that water-scarce South Africa has experienced in 20 years. The ongoing hot and dry weather conditions have not aided the situation.

In November 2015, five out of the nine provinces were declared disaster areas. At one stage, there was only enough water in one of the provinces for 10 more days. The government placed restrictions on the use of water and, if circumstances worsen, water shedding is the next logical step.

Luckily, some rainfall in January this year has alleviated the situation, but the scary truth remains that water is a scarce commodity in the country (and then not to mention the whole world) and continues to be over-exploited.

What Will Happen in the Future?

Nobody knows what the state of affairs in South Africa will be in the future. The electricity and water crises do not seem likely to improve in the near future; things will probably get worse before it gets better. On a more optimistic note is the fact that while people can survive without electricity as humans have done for centuries, living without water is unfathomable.

Saving our remaining water supplies and finding more ways to collect and utilize rainwater has never been more important as is finding an alternative and green energy.

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