“Simply, water is surpassing oil itself as the world’s scarcest critical resource. Just as oil conflicts were central to twentieth-century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order and the destiny of civilization” — Steven Solomon, Water
The Dam, located in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Emmarentia, is serene, tranquil and secluded. Men race their bicycles around the adjacent botanical garden, women jog around the reservoir, families walk their dogs while couples gingerly approach the sandy shore to feed geese. The botanical garden, slumbering just a few weeks ago, is starting to bloom as winter gives way to spring.
South Africa, like many industrialized nations, is a country of dams and large water infrastructure, which are used to generate electricity and redistribute water. But because South Africa is also extremely drought-prone, its reliance on them is striking. The country’s industrial heartland, Gauteng Province, is 100% dependent on water transfer schemes for its economic output. Gauteng’s wealthy capital, Johannesburg, does not sit on a river, lake or waterfront, so all its water must be pumped to it, either up from the ground or via tunnels from far away. This extensive life-support network has allowed Joburg and Gauteng to prosper — Gauteng generates nearly 10% of Africa’s GDP. But at what cost? Dams and transfer schemes in the country are accompanied by displacements, a loss of biodiversity, increased evaporation over large reservoirs, sewage leakage and toxic water drainage, among other effects. South Africa’s water is being over-allocated, especially in Gauteng, and the country needs immediate solutions to quench its thirst. I truly mean immediate — the past year was the driest year on record for the country, and water restrictions were just announced in Gauteng. The system of dams on the Vaal River, which support Joburg, are at 50% capacity, which is dangerously low. Water levels will continue to fall rapidly unless usage is reduced or the drought eases up. Neither is certain to occur.
This situation represents a choice every country makes — how to balance economic development while preserving natural resources, especially water. Promises of economic growth justify large-scale infrastructure like dams and canals, but do these promises actualize to benefits for everyday citizens? And how are those benefits distributed — are they evenly spread out or concentrated among a few people? Are they one-off or continuous?
For the next few months, I’ll be in South Africa trying to find out. This is a story about the rift between broad economic benefits and individually-felt consequences. “Successful” development narratives (like a strong economy) can overshadow the lived experiences of people nearest to projects. When analyzed from the vantage point of citizens, not just GDP growth, infrastructure projects become much more nuanced in their impacts and consequences.
I’ll be crisscrossing the country to tell stories of people whose lives have changed (for better or for worse) from two large water projects, the Orange River Development Project and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. By loosely following the path of the Orange and the Vaal Rivers, I hope to understand how these projects are affecting a cross-section of South Africans. This story is also colored with issues of equity, class, and race, as both these projects were initially implemented during apartheid.
Since I only have a tentative itinerary, much of the journey ahead is uncertain. I’ll be following the story, and that might take me through small towns or large metropolises, lush farms or barren deserts. I may even be following threads of this story to two other countries. I’ll be taking you on this journey with me, with posts detailing the excursions and conversations I’ll have along the way.
I should stress this isn’t just a South African story. It’s the story of the Colorado River, which is now subservient to the needs of the American West, powering California and Las Vegas through their droughts. It can be seen in the Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, which is being dammed by countries pursuing dreams of abundant hydropower. It’s in Nicaragua, as the government is planning to dredge a path through the country in the hope of doubling, or even tripling, GDP.
As for me, I’m a journalist and researcher, drawn to this story because of its universal themes. I spent the past year as a berated fact-checker for the show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and a short career checking Trump statements has made me very attuned to small details (like his hands). I hope to translate some of that meticulousness and levity to the reporting you’ll see here.
I started this post after my first day in the country, walking around Emmarentia Dam, wondering how something so peaceful could be so destructive. Granted, that dam is very small, very old and used solely for recreation, so it’s impact is limited. It’s a far-cry from some of the concrete colossuses that dot South Africa and hold back millions of gallons of water. But the assumption I made stuck out. It’s easy to paint things with a broad brush, but every story is nuanced. Despite its water woes, South Africa has some of the most progressive water laws in the world — a right to sufficient water is enshrined in its constitution. Densely packed Joburg townships like Alexandra have pristine water flowing to its taps, according to a few residents. Part of this journey is separating perception from fact, truth from assumption, and reaching people whose stories have been neglected. I hope you can join me.