Cape Town’s Day Zero water scarcity crisis should be a wake up call for us all

Anirudh Kannan

Hong Kong residents currently use 130 litres per day, well over the recommended amount of 50 litres

Anirudh Kannan |

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People queue to collect water from a natural spring outlet in the South African Breweries in Cape Town

The 2015 film The Big Short ends with a chilling line: “Michael Burry is focusing all of his trading on one commodity: Water.” Taken in isolation, this means nothing, but in the context of the movie, it’s both a grave warning as well as a sign of hope.

Burry is the eccentric hedge fund manager who, along with his associates, predicted and profited from the collapse of the world economy in 2008.

When the movie was released, many were perplexed by his focus on water – a strange bet when compared to commonly traded commodities such as gold. There is no market to trade water.

Recent events, however, have again vindicated Burry and his contrarian views.

The biggest such event, of course, is the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Day Zero, when most of the city’s taps will be turned off, has been pushed back to July 9 but there is little cause for celebration. Strict water conservation measures are still in place in Cape Town. The recommended daily water usage is 50 litres per person (in Hong Kong, the figure is around 130 litres per person per day), and businesses and tourists have been asked to use less water.

If there is a Day Zero, Cape Town will be the world’s first large city in the 21st century to run out of water.

However, with the United Nations predicting that the global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent in 2030, other cities could join Cape Town with their own Day Zero in future. These include Brazil’s Sao Paulo, which faced a water crisis in 2015, India’s Bangalore, a city grappling with high levels of pollution, and Beijing, whose inhabitants, as of 2014, had to make do with an annual supply of just 145,000 litres of fresh water per person, far below the World Bank’s threshold for water scarcity, which is set at one million litres per person.

So, what can we do to tackle this problem before it reaches catastrophic levels? The answer is again provided by Burry, who is investing in farmland, especially land used to make water-intensive food, such as almonds and wine. It’s clear, then, that the solution lies in our food. While we personally may not have the resources that Burry has at his disposal to pour into almond farms, what we can do is change the way we eat – this means cutting down on meat, which has a much higher water footprint (for example, bovine meat consumes 15,415 litres of water per kilogram compared to vegetables, which use up 322 litres per kilogram).

While companies like Impossible Foods, which are working on realistic plant-based meat, may make this transition easier, we have to take the first steps, or risk creating water shortages in more cities around the world.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge