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When Hope Runs Dry: Lessons from Cape Town’s Water Crisis

Soon after Earth Day this year, a grim event will remind the world of the importance of sustainability: Cape Town will become the first major city in the world to run out of water. July 9, 2018, termed Day Zero, is the day the South African city’s reservoirs are projected to dip so low that they will be unable to provide potable water to all but essential services. After that, Cape Town residents will be directed to over 200 collection points to pick up water rations, which officials fear will lead to civil unrest. If there is any silver lining, it is that Cape Town provides an ominous lesson about natural disaster preparedness in light of anthropogenic climate change. Governments in Mediterranean and semi-arid regions should take note, using Cape Town’s shortcomings as a warning to spur the development and improvement of their own water management plans.

Cape Town’s water problem was first identified as a threat to the city’s long-term survival nearly 30 years ago and is the result of years of inadequate infrastructure planning. In 1990, the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) reported that water supplies for the city would dry up by 2007 and recommended that the country begin examining options for wastewater reclamation.  However, despite the construction of a new reservoir, the city’s water supply has only expanded by 15 percent since 1995. The population of the city has increased by 79 percent in the same time period, exacerbating the gap between expected water supply and demand. Despite the population boom and long-standing concerns that the city would run dry, Cape Town was reluctant to limit water consumption in any way; plans to expand and diversify water sources weren’t scheduled to go into effect until 2020. Even after three consecutive years of drought caused by El Niño, city officials—while warning residents of the need to preserve water—did not consider punitive tariffs for those who exceeded the usage limits until January 2018, after the disaster was already apparent. It’s no wonder that the city’s inhabitants, left to use water with little regulation, drained the region’s reservoirs.

Given the economic and humanitarian cost of this disaster, the imperative to prevent this situation from repeating itself in other places is clear. Although Cape Town’s mistakes have led to an insoluble crisis on the horizon, they can also provide a road map for disaster prevention to the rest of a world grappling with the fallout of climate change.

Most importantly, the Cape Town crisis highlights the importance of conducting and acting upon long-term needs assessments. Even in climates at a lower risk for running dry, governments run projections of water needs and trends based on population. In Cape Town, this type of projection indicated that the city needed an increased water supply; however, the local government was slow to enact policies that would expand water availability in non-traditional ways, such as desalinating seawater or increasing the use of recycled wastewater. Instead, officials opted to build another reservoir. In other regions where projected water need is greater than estimated availability, it is critical that governments expand water supply beyond traditional methods.

One of the most successful alternative water sourcing methods is the use of recycled wastewater, otherwise known as greywater. This practice, recommended to Cape Town in the 1990 WRC report, has been implemented in a number of locales across the globe at various scales. In Australia, fear that the country’s largest agricultural area would become unusable prompted a multimillion dollar investment in greywater implementation, including subsidies for citizens who implemented personal permanent greywater systems. The technology is now used in most Australian cities. And in a pilot study in Haifa, Israel, researchers concluded that greywater reuse for toilets alone would decrease urban water requirements by 10 to 25 percent. Both implementations provide models for using greywater to lessen the burden on principal water sources such as reservoirs.

Additional freshwater can be procured through desalination of seawater, a common practice in many countries and one that Cape Town has begun to implement. Desalination plants in the California cities of Santa Barbara and Carlsbad provided 30 and 10 percent of each cities’ freshwater needs, respectively. But despite the apparent promise of turning seawater into a resource that can be used for drinking, bathing, and other needs, considerable environmental concerns exist about the desalination process. The most common method creates about one gallon of freshwater for every two of seawater and dumps the concentrated brine byproduct back into the ocean at the end of desalination, to the detriment of local marine life. Both desalination and greywater recycling projects are costly to the governments running them.

Such complications with increasing water supply through nontraditional methods underscore the importance of decreasing water demand through better public restrictions on water usage. This was perhaps the most dramatic failure in Cape Town: Residents watered lawns and filled swimming pools despite years of drought, and the government did very little to prohibit such practices.

This past January, Cape Town’s government finally set water use standards and publicly shamed those who exceeded recommended water usage by publishing a map of the city showing which areas were complying with new standards. More recently, the government has explored taxing those who exceed the daily water usage limits after its request to reduce usage without an associated consequence failed to meaningfully lower consumption. Indeed, governments attempting to reduce consumption should look to tariff-linked water restrictions that punish overuse. In addition, water conservation can be aided by awareness, and a complete water management plan must include educating the public about the issue.

Though both conservation and supply-expanding efforts may seem superfluous to governments in areas where water scarcity is not an immediate issue, they are anything but. Government officials in Cape Town failed to heed repeated warnings that they needed to realign water supply with consumption, and the city is now paying the price. With the looming threat of civil unrest in the aftermath of the taps being shut off, it is clear that a long-term investment in water infrastructure would have been worthwhile in Cape Town. For the city’s residents, there is little upside to the impending crisis, but Cape Town serves as an example for the necessity of governments at every level to design better water management programs. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth gallons of cure. Photo