How Cape Town stopped the taps running dry: lessons from a water crisis

July 13, 2020
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In early March, after months of emergency water conservation measures, Cape Town announced it had avoided “day zero”. This was the day when water supplies would have officially run dry and the point from which the city would have had to begin distributing emergency rations by hand.

Throughout three consecutive years of drought — in 2017 South Africa’s Western Cape province saw its lowest level of rainfall since 1933 — Cape Town has been struggling to preserve its dwindling water reserves. At one point things looked so bleak that the date set by the city for supplies to run out was as early as 16 April 2018.

On March 7 2018, the city announced that date was being pushed well back into 2019. Water conservation measures, in place since 2016 but accelerated from 2017 onward as an emergency water plan, are working, for now at least. High income residents have cut back their water usage by 80%, low income residents by 40%: all are now required to subsist on just 50 litres a day.

Cape Town’s drought will become less exceptional as the century grows older. Official reports now concede that keeping global temperature rises under the 1.5 degree Celsius target agreed at Paris in 2016 is highly unlikely. As the Earth warms, more and more cities from Los Angeles to Bangalore may need to get through water crises of their own.

When that happens, Cape Town’s water conservation measures could serve as a useful lesson in how to avoid cutting off the taps. So, how did the city avert disaster?

Reducing consumption and clever levies

Since the beginning of the crisis in mid 2017, Cape Town has steadily announced ever more stringent water rations for residents. The present personal limit stands at just 50 litres or less per day, just a third of the average UK daily water consumption of 150 litres and dwarfed by the average US equivalent of over 300 litres.

Cities have cut their water usage before: in 2008 in Melbourne, Australia, for example, locals were exhorted to reduce their water usage to 155 litres a day with a public advertisement campaign. What distinguishes Cape Town is the scale of the rationing — no other city has brought consumption down to such a small allowance and against such time pressure.

“Any crisis situation results in having to make uncomfortable and inconvenient arrangements,” said Xanthea Limberg, who sits on the city government’s Water Crisis Task Team. “I think that we have seen a great buy-in from our residents without whom we wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of the levels of water saving that we have.”

Cape Town’s residents are encouraged not to flush toilets, to take only very short, stop-start showers (baths are best avoided — Cape Town’s deputy mayor Ian Neilson boasts of not having had one in a year) and to reuse leftover bath and shower water, known as “Greywater”, for cleaning and watering plants. Using municipal water to top up pools, irrigate lawns or hose down surfaces is forbidden.

“Any crisis situation results in having to make uncomfortable and inconvenient arrangements”

The government hasn’t just been asking nicely. Reductions in water usage are also backed up by fines and charges for excessive use. As the drought became more severe from 2016, the city steadily increased the level of water restrictions. It backed this up with higher tariffs for residents who continue to use large amounts of water after realising that current charges weren’t sufficiently punitive.

“The reduction in consumption that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks is also a result of the punitive tariff,” said Limberg. “People are being financially impacted by high levels of consumption and as a result are looking at changing their behaviour.”

Fixing Leaks

Exhorting Cape Town’s residents to do their bit to cut consumption may have been the key factor in avoiding day zero, but the city also reduced water waste by improving infrastructure. By fixing leaks and reducing water pressure in pipes, the city was able to make big strides towards meeting its targets.

“Over the last decade and a half, the city has invested in the upgrade and maintenance of our water reticulation infrastructure, which has meant that we reduced the amount of leaks within our system and in doing so the amount of water loss,” said Limberg. “Our water loss rate is at 14%, which is the lowest in the country — the average water loss rate in South Africa is about 35%, so we’re far below that.”

In January 2018, with existing efforts still not having enough of an effect, the city announced it would reduce pressure in pipes leading to several hundred Cape Town properties.

“Almost from the supply zones the pressure has been reduced, which means when you open your tap the flow of water is far less, and this also reduces the amount of water that’s being consumed,” said Limberg. Though this has caused some homes in high rise buildings to have occasional interruptions in water supply, Limberg estimates the measures have allowed the city to save further millions of litres.

Here to stay?

Even with such measures in place, Cape Town required help from neighbouring farmers in the form of water donations. Keeping day zero at arms length remains a challenge, and, for the time being, water limits and tariffs will stay in place.

“Looking forward, the city is obviously cognisant of the fact that it’s not just good enough to manage the current situation in respect to water scarcity: we have to now build further resilience into the system, and plan it, so that we can mitigate and adapt to any future droughts,” said Limberg.

In the next years the city will invest in its own desalination plants as an extra source of water using its own municipal funds. This stems from the vulnerability of the water supply itself: Cape Town shares supplies with the whole of the Western Cape province, which includes not only the city, but also farmers and vineyards. With the province’s water supply controlled by the national ANC government and the city controlled by the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, there have been accusations from both sides of “mismanagement”. Nevertheless, with a population which has doubled since the 1990s and freak weather conditions, Cape Town successfully navigated a high pressure crisis and avoided disaster with weeks to spare.

Over the last five years California has been hit by successive droughts, which have brought wildfires and water shortages in train. In Bangalore, temperatures rise so high and water becomes so scarce that an entire micro-economy has grown from unregulated drillers, who bore wells where people can afford to pay for the charges. Sao Paolo, Jakarta and Mexico City are running out of water, and even London is set to see supply problems in the 2020s. With droughts here to stay, Cape Town’s story will surely have sequels.

This piece previously said that the date Cape Town set day zero to was 16 April 2017. It has been amended to 16 April 2018.

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