SEATTLE — Next to oxygen, water is the body’s most important nutrient. There are millions of people around the world who do not have adequate access to water, primarily concentrated in the developing world. However, Cape Town, South Africa is by no means a typical developing-world city stricken with hunger and poverty. Cape Town is a prosperous metropolis that accounts for 9.9 percent of South Africa’s GDP.
The question is, how did such an affluent city make headlines in late 2017 for potentially being the first major city in the world to officially run out of water?
The Drought and the Dams
The Cape Town water crisis resulted from a combination of many problems, but the three years of drought starting in 2015 played a particularly large role. Water levels in the Cape Town dams began to decline in the first two years of the drought, and the response from city leadership of simply being “water aware” was insufficient.
The winter of 2017 answered Cape Town’s prayers and brought the seasonal winter rain. However, climatologists at the University of Cape Town reported that manmade global warming is very likely to have exacerbated in the Cape Town drought and that Cape Town, along with the rest of the world, should prepare for a much drier future with increasingly unpredictable rains.
Even before the drought, the city’s outdated water storage infrastructure had not kept up with population growth. Since the end of apartheid, Cape Town’s population has increased from 2.4 million in 1995 to 4.3 million in 2018. Within the same time period, the city had only built one major dam, the Berg River Dam in 2009.
Day Zero Avoided
The Cape Town water crisis also stems from the city’s poor crisis management. Water saving appeals only became urgent in the past year while the rest of the city’s residents prayed for rain.
Day Zero became known as the day that dam levels would be so low that Cape Town authorities would have to shut off the taps in Cape Town and start sending people to communal water collection points. After years of trying to convince Capetonians to conserve water, the Day Zero campaign instilled the serious urgency of this problem to the people of Cape Town.
The city’s communication director, Priya Reddy, told The Guardian that Day Zero was “…the most talked about thing in Cape Town for months when it needed to be. It was not a pretty solution, but it was not a pretty problem.”
City planners and residents had been bracing for Day Zero to arrive by April 2018, but fortunately, it has continuously been pushed back. The latest count does not even have a specified month or day, only that Day Zero may still happen sometime in 2019. Cape Town has successfully avoided Day Zero through the combination of both human efforts and plentiful rainfall.
Living on 50 Liters or Less
At the height of the Cape Town water crisis, authorities strictly regulated the use of water in households. Capetonians were not allowed to use more than 50 liters (13 gallons) of water per person per day. To put that into perspective, the global average use of water per person is 185 liters a day.
Living on 50 liters a day means that Capetonians’ gardens went dry, showers were restricted to two minutes and swimming pools sat empty. However, for the most part, residents played their part and collectively were able to decrease their water use by more than half.
Lessons Learned from the Cape Town Water Crisis
Although far from over, the Cape Town water crisis and the establishment of Day Zero have demonstrated some lessons well learned:
- In times of crisis when rapid change is demanded, a city or nation must prioritize sustainable experimentation, robust research and anticipatory planning before any action is taken.
- Open communication and collaborative leadership are essential in times of panic and transition. When leadership is defensive and divisive, like it was in the early stages of the Cape Town water crisis, it leads to blame and uncertainty.
- When adapting cities to climate change, it is necessary to utilize both small and big changes in order to have a sustainable impact.
The Future of Cape Town
While Cape Town was the first city to get this close to running out of water, it will not be the last. Cities around the world may need to face their own version of the Cape Town water crisis to make a change in their water conservation methods.
Currently, Cape Town is expanding its water infrastructures and preparing strategies to manage water and climate risks. It is essential that Cape Town moves beyond short-term coping strategies and starts implementing long-term plans prioritizing climate adaptation.
– Lolontika Hoque