Come hell or high water: Why Cuba, and not world leader Israel to avert SA’s water crisis?

JNF and the Arava Agricultural Training Center in the Turkana region of Kenya, providing water and agricultural expertise and training. Source: JNF YouTube screenshots.

By Kayla Rachbuch (This article first appeared in, 30 April 2021)

Through the 230 reservoirs that the JNF has built, up to a remarkable 85% of Israel’s water is reused. Compare that with the next runner-up, Spain, which only reclaims 19% of its water, and Cuba’s 4%.

South Africa has rolled out the red carpet for 24 Cuban engineers to assist the government in implementing a sustainable water delivery system for the country. This will cost South African taxpayers R64m at a time of serious fiscal austerity and has been lambasted by opposition political parties and civil society.

At a welcome ceremony held in Pretoria, South African Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the Cuban specialists in various areas of engineering intend to share their expertise in water sustainability techniques, maintenance and infra-structure, and management of water supply – with particular emphasis on rural and outlying communities.

“Climate change, population growth, and lack of investment is putting increasing pressure on South Africa’s water resources,” said Michael Kransdorff, the chairperson of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in South Africa, the leading international Jewish environmental organisation.

For the last decade, South Africa has consistently fallen short of providing a steady supply of this vital resource. The severe water shortage and drought that plagued Cape Town in 2017 and 2018, is just one example of our poorly maintained water and sanitation infrastructure.

Now, the water and sanitation department has seconded the help of what they see as Cuba’s ‘top’ engineers. According to Minister Sisulu, “Cuba has faced similar challenges. They have overcome them and the engineers are here to assist us. They will teach and show us how to overcome these challenges”.

However, Cuba is far from a water success story. In fact, its water system is in a dire state.

Years of political malaise, drought and infrastructure decay, have made running water a rarity for the vast majority of Cubans. Only 11 percent of the country’s population of 11.2 million receive piped water at home 24 hours a day. For over 50 percent of households, water is available only sporadically, typically receiving around two hours of running water every five days.

These households are forced to rely on mobile water tanks, often drawn by horse and cart. Even the ‘privileged few’, who do have continuous water supply in their homes, because the water pressure in the system is so low, have had to resort to using garden hoses and private motors to connect a street-level water supply with their rooftop storage.

That is to say nothing about the drinkability of the water. In many areas, chemicals are not available for water purification, which has resulted in carnivorous fish being used to eat the parasite-carrying mosquito larvae that can be found in the drinking water.

Sanne Derks, an anthropologist and photojournalist, documented how public health workers in Cuba were trying to provide clean drinking water to citizens. In her exposé for the New York Times published in February 2021, she described seeing people “hassling with water pumps, the streets soaked because of faulty pipelines, water trucks continuously plying the roads…”. She continued saying that having been “born and raised in the rainy Netherlands, where clean drinking water is taken for granted, I hadn’t expected water to be a scarcity on a tropical island”.

Despite these shocking conditions, the South African government still chose Cuba over the world-class assistance that many countries, particularly Israel, can offer. “There are many benefits South Africa could gain by partnering with Israel”, said Kransdorff. “They have become the world leaders in water management and conservation”.

Israel, through its technological advances in water-recycling and reclaiming water, is fulfilling the biblical prophecy of making the desert bloom. Through the 230 reservoirs that the JNF has built, up to a remarkable 85% of Israel’s water is reused. Compare that with the next runner-up, Spain, which only reclaims 19% of its water, and Cuba’s 4%.

Israel, and the JNF, have always gladly offered their expertise to other countries. Successful projects and partnerships throughout Africa are testaments to the professional and collaborative nature of the Jewish state. Communities throughout Africa have benefited greatly from the clean running water solutions and technology Israel has to offer.

Notably, Israel assisted the Turkana region of Kenya in developing successful water catchment areas and agriculture. Before this, water issues, unhealthy soil, and drought prevented the region from developing agriculture. The health deficits in surrounding communities were insurmountable. Now the Arava Agricultural Training Center, supported by the JNF, equips hundreds of students and policymakers to learn modern techniques of agriculture and water conservation. The Arava Center has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the University of the Free State to facilitate the sharing of this knowledge in South Africa.

An incredible 132 successful farms have been established in Kenya since the collaboration began in 2015.

The Western Cape is estimated to have lost R5 billion in revenue during the drought of 2017-2018, largely due to agricultural losses.

Projects like those in Kenya would greatly benefit South Africa’s agricultural industry, water management, conservation efforts, and rural communities.

Kransdorff concludes that “come hell or high water, the South African government seems determined to pay a failed state with a poor human rights record like Cuba to fix our water problems, but not to accept the generous help of Israel, the world’s leader in water management.”

Nevertheless, JNF South Africa remains committed to showcasing Israeli environmental achievements and facilitating the sharing of Israeli know-how and technology in South Africa.

“We promote Israeli know-how through our education programmes for learners at our JNF environmental centres in Mamelodi and Hammarsdale”, said Kransdorff.

“Moreover, we organise tours, conferences and events around key environmental challenges facing South Africa. In fact, we held a webinar with an international best-selling author and other global leaders in water issues on 6 May called Hell or High Water: the untold story of how Israel is sharing her water miracle with South Africa and the world (watch it here). We hope Minister Sisulu and her team were listening”.

Sources: Between Drought and Floods, Cuba Seeks to Improve Water Management – Cuba | ReliefWe

Visit the South African Zionist Federation – Cape Council website.

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2021 issue – Download here.

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