Botswana’s Water Crisis

I’ve just left Botswana, a place that I visit once a year as part of our Supply Chain Masters programme. I inducted ten new students there, and kicked off their first module, on the subject of supply chain strategy.

In Botswana a topic of conversation, time and again, was the shortage of water. The people of Gaborone are waiting for the rainy season to begin, but I’m told it’s been about a decade since the rain was sufficient to really fill up the reservoir at the Gaborone Dam. My colleagues have suggested that the public hasn’t been informed as to the full extent of the problem, although research suggests that the failure of supplies is hardly a secret: there’s even a neon sign in the city that reports the current level of the reservoir. The Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) also provides regular updates as to the state of supplies via its website. It makes grim reading: the principal sources of supply for the Greater Gaborone area are well below their maximum capacity:

Dam and Water Supply Situation, September 2015
Dam and Water Supply Situation, September 2015 (information from WUC, 2015)

The situation is somewhat better elsewhere, in the north of the country, but the capital is greatly inconvenienced and some southern villages are reported to have been without water for two or three weeks at a time.

Water shortages are not new. They’ve accompanied every visit to Botswana that I have made, and an article on Mmegi Online from last year illustrates the problem:

“For the first time in its history, Gaborone Dam is dying, its once proud 141 million cubic metres of water drying up to barely four metres above silt level. Of the seven water draw-off points in the Dam, six are exposed and the last is halfway in the water.

“Once the water reaches below this last water draw-off point, Gaborone Dam will have failed, depriving the 500,000 or so residents and businesses of Greater Gaborone their primary and traditional source of water.”

– Mguni (2014)

Can a dam die? Reporter Mbongeni Mguni’s article describes the Gaborone Dam as a great beast in its death throes. It’s a colourful simile, but there’s nothing wrong with the Dam: it will still be there, ready to serve again… when the rains return. In a sense, the fault doesn’t lie with WUC and their infrastructure, but with a growing population in the area – and with all of us, for our contribution to climate change.

A bad situation is becoming worse because Gaborone depends upon South Africa for some of its water. The Molatedi Dam (in the table above) is actually in South Africa. Equally, some places in South Africa depend upon water from Botswana: national boundaries don’t always reflect the infrastructure and resourcing arrangements. Under agreements that date back to 1988, cross-border transfers of water are reduced when reserves fall below a certain level. That serves to preserve dwindling supplies, but if you happen to live on the far side of a border it exacerbates the effect of reduced rainfall.

I have personal experience of being without water, although in my case it occurred in winter: our supply froze a few days before Christmas one year, and wasn’t restored until early in the New Year. For a couple of days, we clung on: showering at the gym, cooking with bottled water, and storing dirty dishes in the dishwasher, although it couldn’t be used. I was fortunate because I could bring snow and ice indoors, and leave it to melt. (Melted snow is nasty-looking stuff and you wouldn’t want to drink it, but it’s good enough for flushing toilets.) Eventually, though, we were forced to accept defeat, and we spent Christmas with relatives. Drinking bottled water is OK, but until the mains supply fails you don’t realise how often throughout the day you depend upon water for ordinary tasks, such as for washing your hands between jobs.

Next summer, we had our water pipe replaced with a frost-proof one, buried deep – at considerable expense. I hope never to be without water again: virtually everything in the household grinds to a halt, and I can only imagine what the impact would be if one were trying to run a business.

The first time I came to Gaborone there were times of day when there was no water to be had in our hotel. These times were announced in advance, and forced us to wake up early in order to shower. (The measure didn’t seem to save water, so much as to cost us sleep.) This time, there were no such interruptions, but the water in my washbasin was distinctly brownish. There’s nothing inherently wrong with water that comes with a bit of soil in it: I recall a bath on the Isle of Arran that looked like weak tea. It still got me clean: in fact, the peat-laden water was so soft, compared to that of my London upbringing, that a moderate quantity of soap caused it to foam madly.

Gaborone water, though, was water of last resort. It smelled strongly of chlorine, so obviously the water company are doing their best to keep it wholesome. Even so, I nursed my delicate British constitution by not to drinking any, and I avoided foods such as salads that would have been washed in it. (But I’m going to start suffering from scurvy if these trips get much longer…)

Tap filling a bucket with brownish water

Water supply as seen recently in Gaborone [photo: Fahmida Miller]

This is a report without a satisfactory ending, because the story itself hasn’t yet ended. The people of Gaborone can only wait, and hope that the situation improves. WUC have to do more than merely wait and hope, reacting quickly to reports of leaks and delivering water by truck where necessary. The government of Botswana can’t just wait and hope, either: they’re engaged in large-scale, not altogether successful schemes to pipe water over longer distances, including some from neighbouring countries. There is also a long-term plan of drawing water from the Zambezi, but Botswana’s Zambezi riverfront at the ‘Four Corners of Africa’ (the border between Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) is tiny: just a point on one bank of a 2,574km river. In such a situation, how much water is it reasonable to extract from a river that others also depend upon? Perhaps the tremendous flow of the Zambezi means that dipping into this shared resource won’t cause friction? On average, 1,088m3 of water per second goes over Victoria Falls, not far downstream… but even if water is so abundant as to be considered free, such engineering projects require time. Meanwhile, Botswana’s capital must continue to function, somehow – as must the nation’s water-intensive mining activities.

In the same week, one of my lectures was on the subject of the sustainable supply chain. I explained that sustainable materials are things that grow, or are refreshed by natural processes. Water is a sustainable material, per this definition… which serves to underline the difference between ‘sustainable’ and ‘being sustained’.

 

References:

Mguni, M. (2014) ‘A requiem as Gaborone Dam gives up the ghost’, Mmegi Online, October 10th. Available from: http://www.mmegi.bw/index.php?aid=46594 (accessed 03/10/2015)

Water Utilities Corporation, WUC (2015) ‘Dam Levels’, available from: http://www.wuc.bw/wuc-content.php?cid=109 (accessed 03/10/2015)

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3 thoughts on “Botswana’s Water Crisis

  1. Pingback: Imagining a World Without Rainfall | Capacify

  2. Colleagues who have just returned from another teaching trip to Botswana report that the water situation is no better. I’m astonished because this is meant to be the middle of the rainy season. Who can deny that the climate has changed? Still hoping for better news from Gaborone…

  3. Thanks for sharing. Very interesting. It’s sad that the government don’t have contingency plans for its people. There was some talk in 2014 that the government wanted to bring in foreign investments to strengthen their water supply capabilities, but the rains came, ended the drought and nothing more came out of it.

    Seems like the same issue is recurring.. Climate is changing and they can’t just sit and wait for the rains to fall again.
    I’m from Singapore and we do not have sustainable water sources either. We had to resort to buying from Malaysia and now we are pursuing all alternative water treatment processes to achieve self-sustenance. This makes me so much more appreciative of my government’s push and foresight.

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