Tuesday, June 18, 2019

peak water

BloombergTowing an Iceberg: One Captain’s Plan to Bring Drinking Water to 4 Million People

Nicholas Sloane doesn’t mind discomfort. The 56-year-old South African marine-salvage master has survived two helicopter crashes and spent thousands of hours aboard ships that are burning, sinking, breaking apart, or leaking oil, chemicals, or cargo into the ocean. Often, he gets calls in the middle of the night asking him to pack his bags and fly immediately to a disaster zone across the world, anywhere from Yemen to Papua New Guinea. Twice, he’s fought off armed pirates using water cannons, sound cannons, and strobe lights.

Usually, Sloane rooms on location, bunking in makeshift beds aboard singed or waterlogged ships he’s working to rescue. He once lived for three months with a family on Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago, orchestrating the logistics of catching and washing thousands of rockhopper penguins drenched in bunker fuel from a shipwreck. More recently, he spent 2½ years overseeing the almost $1 billion refloating of the Costa Concordia, the infamous Italian cruise ship that capsized inside a marine sanctuary off the coast of Tuscany, killing 32 passengers.

But at some point early last year, Sloane really wanted to take a bath and couldn’t. He was home with his family in Cape Town, which had recently declared an emergency: After three years of severe drought, the city of 4 million was at risk of becoming one of the first in the world to run out of municipal water. To forestall a shutoff, each household was permitted only 50 liters—about 13 gallons—per day per person to cover drinking, cooking, washing, and showers. “That’s enough to fill less than half a tub,” says Sloane, a soft-spoken man with graying hair, ruddy skin, and a deep crease between his green eyes. “My wife used to take a bath every night and a shower every morning. She told me, ‘You’d better do something.’ ”

More than a year later, disaster has been averted, thanks to badly needed rainfall and drastic reduction in water use. But conditions in Cape Town remain far from normal. The daily-use limit has been raised, but only to 70 liters, and people still take speed showers, collecting the runoff to use for toilet flushing. Some hotels have removed stoppers from bathtubs to keep profligate tourists in line. And farmers throughout the country are reeling. More than 30,000 seasonal jobs have been lost in the Western Cape, and crop production has declined by about 20%. During the height of the drought, hundreds of farmers in the Northern Cape killed off most of their livestock rather than truck in costly feed. “Everyone has cut back their flocks of sheep to the bare minimum needed to start again when it rains,” one farmer told Bloomberg News in 2017.

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