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Water governance, “Day Zero” and the future of Cape Town

Water governance, "Day Zero" and the future of Cape Town

South Africa is one of the world’s driest countries and demand for water continues to climb. The demand for water is estimated to jump from 14.2 billion m³ in 2018 to about 18 billion m³ by 2030. This is way beyond the bearing capacity of Cape Town.

The water crisis that hit Capetonians in 2018 got so bad that its luckiest inhabitants were limited to 13 gallons of water per person per day – people reused shower water, limited toilet flushing, favoured night-time irrigation; eateries, hotels and beauty parlours appealed to people to not flush indiscriminately when they used the restrooms.

Early last year, a study projected that by 2040, at least 11 major world cities will run out of drinking water.

While Cape Town may be the first major city to run out of water, it won’t be the last. Miami, Cairo, and Tokyo are three of the global hotspots that may be hit.

Already, about two-thirds of the world’s population lives in drought conditions for at least one month every year.

It was almost a countdown for when the last drop of water from the taps will happen. Seeing the ominous signs, the government took an extraordinary gamble by announcing the “Day Zero”, a point where dam levels would be so low that taps in Cape Town will be turned off and people will have to rely on communal water collection points.

In spite of covering about two-thirds of the earth’s surface, water, especially fresh drinking water, is only 3% of the whole volume.

World Resources Institute’s 2014 analysis of the world’s 500 biggest cities estimates that one in four are in a situation of “water stress”. Over 1 billion people lack access to water and another three billion find it difficult to access water.

The port city of over 4 million people almost became the first modern city in the world to completely run dry. One year later, and having been exposed to one of the worst-ever drought-induced urban water crises, residents became water-wise.

Cape Town’s dried out dams are now over 80% full. Water use restrictions have been relaxed. And the point at which Cape Town’s water supply would be shut off never came to pass.

Cape Town had always shown all the signs of a pending water crisis. In a dry climate, with rapid urbanization and relatively high water consumption it was only a matter of time. After three years of prolonged poor rainfall, the city announced drastic action was needed to avoid running out.

The government collaborated with residents and business concerns through various water-saving initiatives. People also pulled shared tips on social media.

Cape Town city officials introduced increasingly strict restrictions, which as well as limiting the volumes allowed, also restricted what the water was used for. Filling swimming pools, washing cars, and fountains were all banned.

Households using high volumes of water faced prohibitive fines. The city rolled out management devices which set a daily limit on the water supply to properties and significantly hiked tariffs.

By adjusting, forecasting and conserving water – a city’s water-consuming pattern, and ushering cost-saving approaches, Cape Town managed to avert the worst of the water scarcity crisis. 

However, the risk of future shortages remain.

Furthermore, innovative ways must be deployed to handle data analytics to manage water resources and optimize water reuse to meet the demands of a smart water future.

Ageing and costly sewer infrastructure of major world cities is a great challenge and there’s no better time than now, to invest, develop and modernize water treatment of both domestic and industrial wastewater.

Lessons from the world’s hydrohub, Singapore is instructive in this regard; it was the first country to adopt the method of recycling waste-water after it faced a water crisis.

Today, it has successfully established over 200 water companies and hydrological research centres aimed at providing its citizen with sustainable drinking water.

The Abu-Dhabi model also receives 35% of the potable water from desalinating brackish seawater. It is designed to supply 70% of the city with recycled wastewater for domestic use, irrigation and water sports.

Decentralized wastewater treatment systems are environmentally sustainable methods of promoting water governance and adequacy.

Three Stellenbosch University academics designed an approach to eliminate water waste from their lab’s various systems. Their Closed Cold Water Recycling System would conserve water and perfectly eliminate waste thereby making more potable municipal water available to users.

A Fish Hoek-based company also came up with a system to stem domestic water wastage. This simple garden greywater system connects to your showers and sinks, collects the greywater and distributes it in your garden

Because water is the sole sustenance of life and there is no substitute for water, an urgent model must be instituted to avert any pending water crisis in Capetown’s future.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect News Central’s editorial stance.


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