As someone born and raised in Cape Town, the water crisis has me questioning the impact of global climate change and reaffirming the importance of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Although Sudan and South Africa are in disparate parts of the world the Cape Town drought made me question the situation in Darfur. I served as a peacekeeper in Darfur in 2010-2011 and I remember people regularly queuing at boreholes for drinking water. I never imagined that I would see the same thing in Cape Town.  

If you had asked me about the similarities of these two places 10 years ago I would have said that they have little to nothing in common with one another. The one, an international tourist destination, with its iconic Table Mountain, the wine country and beautiful beaches although not without its problems; and the other a place recovering from genocide, famine and mass atrocity. Despite the differences in location, climate change has proven to be a phenomenon which occurs without discrimination.

Global climate change affected the rainfall patterns in Darfur which led to a protracted drought. The violence in Darfur was in large caused by conflict and tensions between herder and nomadic peoples, associated with African and Arab groups respectively, who competed for declining water resources in Western Sudan. In the early 2000s, a wider conflict broke out in Darfur, an insurgency, which had broad political causes. The lack of water resources remained a central theme in the conflict, one that has still not been resolved. In the post conflict stage, access to water will no doubt remain a critical discussion point on the agenda.

I was deployed as a blue helmet in Darfur as part of United Nations African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). I was the combat engineer platoon commander for the South African Battalion deployed there and one of my main responsibilities was to ensure the survivability of our forces- in simpler terms, the purification and provision of water for UN troops. We were based in three locations, Malha, Mellit and Kutum. We had to rely on helicopters for transport as the three geographically removed areas did not have easy road communication.

Mellit, Darfur (Photo Credit to Jason MacDonald)

There was little to no surface water in all three of these locations and as a result we had to largely depend on the water table for our water supply. At approximately 400m from our base we had a borehole and water pump which we used to supply water to our contingent in Kutum. The water went through a process of purification before it was consumed by the soldiers. We ensured regular testing through working with the military environmental health section.

We ran a range of tests to ensure that the water was potable. We tested for various contaminants including nitrites and nitrates which are common in rural areas, especially from wells and boreholes. Water with high concentrations of nitrates and nitrites can result in methemoglobinemia.

Water testing in Malha, Darfur (Lieutenant Colonel (Major at the time) Jason MacDonald on the left and myself (a Captain at the time) on the far right and three assault pioneers between us)

The purification and provision of water to peacekeepers in Darfur was an operational necessity. When comparing our limited work in this distant war-torn region of the world to what is happening in Cape Town, a world class city with all the resources of a modern society, I can’t help but wonder at the future international effects of climate change and the potential political consequences.

SDG 6, which is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, was largely thought to be applicable to people in rural areas. The water crisis in Cape Town was a clear indication that even modern urban centres can be vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In both contexts, Darfur and Cape Town, the responsibility for addressing the challenges of sustainable water management lies within governments, NGOs, IGOs, citizens and local authorities.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) as the provincial leadership in the Western Cape South Africa, as well as us, the citizens of Cape Town, must find solutions to our problems. Where the world has rallied around Cape Town and further developed a water research industry, the solution is, was and will be a practical one, which to some extent involves the grassroots level while considering strategic and global concerns. The DA inherited the problem and the issue was resolved. Where South Africa has always been a country with limited rainfall, we must move forward with the added pressure of global climate change to find sustainable South African solutions. While complex plans were put in place to avoid ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town aided considerably by a wet winter; Darfur remains in a challenging condition with increased water shortages. UNAMID has put in a concerted effort to meet the challenge of water scarcity however in order to ensure sustainable management of water resources, long term and sustainable planning and investment is required. In looking forward we must consider how global climate change and the availability of clean water and sanitation could influence the first and developing world.

By Antonio Garcial