Story

The Nuances of Reporting on Drought, the Everything Story

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Advertisements in Cape Town encourage people to conserve water. Image by Brett Walton. South Africa, 2018.

Advertisements in Cape Town encourage people to conserve water. Image by Brett Walton. South Africa, 2018. 

When the water goes, life as it once was, in wetter days, ceases. Daily chores, business operations, recreation—all the familiar motions—can be flipped upside down. Severe drought forces some people, especially the wealthy, city-dwelling people of the world, to really think about water, perhaps for the first time.  

I think of drought as The Everything Story: its consequences cascade through ecological, economic, political and personal life. There are two different but complementary ways to report on it.

One approach focuses on individual dramas: the family whose well is dry, the marina owner whose dock no longer reaches the shoreline of a receding reservoir, the farmer whose crop withered, the landscaping company figuring out how to adapt to water restrictions, the slack river clogged with fish kills or algae blooms. Individual stories can be about people or industries or communities, but they are usually immediate and personal, putting a face to the lack of water. They answer the questions Who? and What?

The other approach untangles structural issues: the rules governing who has access to water, the politics behind water allocation, economic and demographic factors, the planning processes that did or did not happen. Structural issues are harder to report. They have deep historical roots and are the product of committee meetings, legislative battles, agency decrees, and societal blind spots. They are technical. They are rarely eye-catching. They answer the questions Why? and How?

I found all of these angles in Cape Town when I reported there in April. Western Cape province was in a severe three-year drought that had depleted the six big reservoirs that are the main water supply for the city and nearby farms. I watched people queue for water and observed city bathrooms with faucets turned off and handles removed. I heard tales of residents who showered while standing in buckets and others who stockpiled water, in case the worst happened.

The structural components, particular to this country’s geography, history, and politics, took more time to pull apart. They can be seen in the economic and social vestiges of apartheid that manifest in striking water inequality: some 12 percent of Cape Town households do not have piped water in their homes. They can be seen in a national politics that is rife with corruption and still rooted in racial division. They can be seen in the discussions about water supply planning in the Western Cape that have carried on for more than a decade.

Drought—like floods, hurricanes, landslides, and earthquakes—is a natural hazard. Sometimes these events happen unexpectedly and cause great destruction. At other times, with improved forecasting tools, these events are foreseen and yet still cause great destruction. Hazards turn into disasters because of poor planning, shortsighted management, deficient laws, and inadequate funding for adaptation. Not all damage can be avoided, but it can be lessened.

Without both reporting approaches—the individual and the structural—the story of drought is incomplete. It is a picture without the frame, a punchline without the setup, a cake without the recipe. The two approaches and the outcomes that they seek to illuminate are twinned: often the level of individual suffering is prescribed by the quality of planning, management, civic trust, and laws.