Cape Town: When the Worst Case Comes To Pass


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Declining water storage levels in Western Cape’s largest six dams. Courtesy Climate Systems Analysis Group

The news that Cape Town had just enough water to last until April sent shock waves throughout the world last month. It is one thing to talk about the world running out of water and another to actually read news that a city would officially run out of water on a particular date.

Ironically, just three years ago in 2015, Cape Town was recognised in Paris for its water conservation and demand management programme. Before the introduction of the programme, water consumption was growing at 4.7% per annum, which was then reduced to less than 2% per annum and water wastage reduced to 20%, resulting in total water savings of approximately 30%. The city was commended for recycling 6% of its potable water and for using recycled water to irrigate public parks. 258 kilometres of water pipes were replaced in order to reduce pipe bursts and water leaks. The average water consumption was reduced to less than 100 litres per day, which is commendable by any standards, even though the average did not reflect the lifestyles of the privileged white population.

But, a three-year drought changed everything and brought a city to its knees. The declining rainfall slowly came to almost a halt. The rainfall pattern was no longer what it used to be. If only the governmental authorities had woken up early to the misery that lay ahead and set up desalination and water reuse plants on a war footing in combination with stringent penalties for big consumers of water, perhaps things would not have come to such a sorry state. Today, most of the plants are in various stages of construction, when in fact, they should have been up and running. In 2011, a fully-built desalination plant in Mossel Bay was deemed too expensive to run and kept in suspended animation. Residents have been forced to reduce their consumption to 50 litres per capita per day with an impending “Day Zero” when it will be cut to 25 litres, which has now been moved to July. It does not help that Cape Town exports large amounts of virtual water via its wines. Water-intensive industries in drought-hit regions are a recipe for disaster.

Cape Town is not the first one to show us what climate change can wreak on a city. Ancient civilizations such as the one that grew on the banks of River Saraswati in ancient India were also probably affected by a change in climate patterns, which led to a migration of its people. More recently in 2008, Barcelona in Spain had to take the unprecedented step of shipping in water when drought caused water levels in reservoirs to dip below emergency levels. Sau Paulo in Brazil was left with just 20 days of water supply in 2015 when a persistent drought nearly emptied its reservoirs. Melbourne, Jakarta, Delhi, Bengaluru…the list of cities which are at risk of running out of water is only growing.

It must not be forgotten that along with drought emergencies, excessive rainfall and flooding instances are also on the rise. Clearly, we are in an age when water management has to take centre-stage. Mega cities that have not implemented measures for managing their water demand, nor planned for climate change nor invested in water reuse/desalination run the risk of being cut down to 25 litres per day or engulfed in floods sooner than later.

Planning and resilience will determine which cities will survive into the future.


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