Tuesday, December 4, 2018

From Water to Electricity - The Resource-Constrained Future of South Africa (and the Globe)?

Sunday evening. I sat out on my apartment’s back patio, watching a silent armada of silver clouds move slowly over Table Mountain, shielding the city from the setting sun. Dusk comes fairly late to Cape Town at this time of the year, but still early enough that, at half past seven, the City Bowl’s street lights began to awaken from their daylong slumber. Slowly, as the bluish glow of the sky gave way to dark, a comforting smattering of twinkling yellow specks of light emerged from the urban landscape.

Although I often enjoy this view, my observation that night wasn’t completely casual. Earlier in the weekend, the City of Cape Town and news outlets had warned that the city, like the rest of the country, would face rolling blackouts due to insufficient power supply to the national electricity grid. According to the City’s loadshedding schedule, power to Cape Town’s city centre would be shut off at 8pm that night.

Taking a big picture view, the timing was incredible. Based on the first healthy rainy season in several years, the City had just announced a reduction in severe water use restrictions that had hung over the city for nearly a year. Within the same day, South Africa’s parastatal electricity provider, Eskom, announced new rolling blackouts across the country due to coal shortages and maintenance issues. While the cause of Eskom’s dwindling coal supplies are largely due to government and corporate corruption, the consequences, as with the Western Cape’s drought, are likely longterm and bring into focus the real possibility of a future with tightening resource constraints. It appears that just as one resource crisis loosened its grip, another is coming into focus.

As I sat, I wondered what exactly I was about to experience. How much of the glistening lights I was viewing would disappear? Would the blackout happen all at once, or in stages? Which parts would go completely black, and which ones, for reasons of governmental priority or private investment, would stay alight? Failures like these, planned or not, are a unique opportunity for observing the infrastructure networks that otherwise remain largely hidden from our view. As with water, food, and other basic resources, we take for granted the system of electrical power upon which our modern lives are totally dependent. It is only when a link in the chain fails and these systems stumble are we compelled to contemplate how they work... or don’t.

Infrastructure failures can also reveal the power dynamics, wealth distribution, and political priorities of a place. To what extent, I wondered, would the back up batteries and generators pick up the slack in this, the economic and political center of the city? How prepared, how energy self-sufficient, how well resourced were the properties around me? To what extent could elements of this city insulate themselves from the crisis?

The severe drought of earlier this year reflected both the best and the most troubling aspects of our relationship with our environment and each other. Capetonians mustered admirably to cut their water consumption in half, while the municipal government (belatedly) wrestled with a city-wide contingency plan and (more commendably) sought to inform the public about the nature of the crisis. Sadly--or perhaps fortunately?--all areas of the city faced the threat of water shortage that normally only the poorest areas regularly face. For many, dealing with the drought meant resorting to private boreholes, a somehow typically South African solution to the failure of government service: protecting those with means while impoverishing the collective resources available to those without.

Would access to electricity would play out the same way? Thankfully, the City has said it will take into account the impact of electricity failure on the areas of Cape Town most exposed to crime and violent gang activity. But uncertainty regarding the provision of power will likely drive those who can afford it to find their own way out of darkness, which I imagine means less collective dependence on public provision of resources. Something about that, likely the potential for unequal access, strikes me as troubling.

This all says a lot about the future. The future is likely to be a place where resources such as electricity and water cannot be taken for granted and are in more sporadic supply. It is also a period that, as it stands, will be experienced by a country, and a global population, with radically extreme economic and developmental vantage points. Where public infrastructure systems fail, where government institutions cannot deliver services, and where wealthy interests feel safer depending on self-sufficiency, we may expect a schism between those who are insulated from the increasing pressure on resources and those who are more vulnerable. Unfortunately, it seems to me, insulating the wealthy from the resource constraints facing the rest raises the long-term social, economic, environmental and psychological costs for everyone. In South Africa, the impacts of and responses to environmental crises preface what a more unequal world can expect when the pressures of climate change and resource extraction hit other more stable parts of the world with greater force.

As it turned out, my wait on Sunday night was, happily, for naught. Lights continued to ping on, and I began to realize that, for whatever reason, the loadshedding was not reaching this corner of South Africa (although it did others). I watched a television screen flicker through a far-off apartment window. In the distance, at the base of Table Mountain, the lights of residential areas continued to twinkle. I watched the normal traffic (its own resource story) continue busily along. But with the long-term threat of more loadshedding to come, I’m guessing this won’t be my last chance.