UMD Professor researches Cape Town water crisis

essic.JPGBy Greta Easthom

As residents in Cape Town, South Africa, prepare to run out of clean water in the coming months, a UMD professor has taken it upon himself to help mitigate the crisis.

On Feb. 1, atmospheric and oceanic science professor Dr. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm presented a seminar at UMD, titled “What would Thomas Malthus tell us in the 21st Century? Experiences in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus from an International Development Perspective.”

In a project funded by the World Bank, Miralles-Wilhelm mapped out Cape Town’s projected water availability. Due to drought, population size and climate change, the area is expected to run out of clean water by mid-April, according to a statement released on Jan. 22 by the city’s deputy executive director, Alderman Ian Nielson.

“Population is the key influence in the demand for water, energy and food. If population grows, and there is economic growth in countries,” Miralles-Wilhelm said. “This means that not only do we consume more resources because we are more people but also because we consume more per capita.”

Miralles-Wilhelm said the World Bank provided funding for them several years ago to work in South Africa, focusing on water use and expansion potential in the energy sector.

“South Africa is a naturally water-scarce country,” Miralles-Wilhelm said. “But it is also recognized for water pioneering. They do have a philosophy of reusing 100 percent of water.”

Miralles-Wilhelm added, however, that residents eventually “wanted to expand their energy” in areas “where they had less water.”  

“In the case of Cape Town, the dependence of South Africa on coal as an energy source is a big contributor to demand for water, and when there is a prolonged drought in an already water-scarce country, then there is little time to react and use water more efficiently,” said Miralles-Wilhelm.

According to a statement released by Neilson, each resident has been limited to 50 liters of water each day since Feb. 1.

During the seminar, Miralles-Wilhelm talked about Thomas Malthus, a demographer and economist who theorized that the exponential nature of population would eventually overrun the linear growth of food production.

Due to agricultural advances that allow population growth to keep apace with food production, according to Miralles-Wilhelm, we know today that this is not true.

“Thomas Malthus did set out a thought process that would lead us to sustainability about planning for the future, and thinking about [possible] scenarios,” Miralles-Wilhelm said. “We can analyze whether if we manage these things in a more sustainable manner, a lot of these things will be mitigated.”

Miralles-Wilhelm used a global change assessment model to couple the socioeconomic, energy, land-use, water and climate components of the Cape Town crisis.

“Cape Town needs to get help from other places, because they do not have the resources to get themselves out of this situation,” junior atmospheric oceanic science major Alaina Froh said. “This is an issue caused by poor planning, not by the individuals in Cape Town.”

Froh noted that the issue of environmental justice in the area has added to the problem.

“The poor black areas surrounding Cape Town have dealt with water issues for years now,” Froh said. “They already had fewer resources due to a long history of oppression, and had no choice but to continue their lives with fewer resources.”

“I think the realization that more integrated planning is not only necessary, but that we can now do it because we have better simulation tools for such planning, is a key message for policy makers in water, energy and food,” Miralles-Wilhelm said.  “The country-level experiences we are now developing will be useful case studies to implement, learn more, and scale up to other countries around the world.”

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