In 2017, Cape Town, South Africa was facing “Day Zero,” when the city’s water resources would drop to dangerous levels. With progressive behavior and governance, Cape Town’s government took decisive action to keep the city from going dry.
As winter took its bite over the southern hemisphere, residents of Cape Town, South Africa, looked anxiously towards their rainy season. Cape Town, which entered a severe drought in 2017, urgently required consistent and above-average rainfall to avoid the looming threat of “Day Zero” returning in 2019 — the day when city authorities could potentially be faced with the prospect of turning off the taps of millions of residents.
A little over a year following the introduction of severe water restrictions and in concert with World Water Week, I speak with Bernelle Verster of Future Water, a water think-tank at the University of Cape Town, to provide an update on Cape Town’s water crisis and shed some light on the progressive governance and behavior change that is helping the city avoid going dry.
Cape Town received significantly above-average rainfall in 2013 and 2014 followed by significantly below-average rainfall between 2015 – 2017, draining dam levels to 12.3 percent. In 2017, the city entered its most severe drought in over 100 years and set out to mitigate “Day Zero” via a host of political, technological and business measures.
Since the start of the winter, Cape Town has experienced some welcome precipitation that has recharged it’s six main dams to more than 50 percent of capacity. However, principle dams, such as Thewaterskloof, are still anticipated to suffer during the summer season, and the last 12 percent of a dam’s reservoir cannot practically be utilized.
Bernelle Verster highlights an important caveat of precipitation forecasting and the early winter update: “Even in the most optimistic of models, rainfall forecasting, water evaporation, and augmentation modeling are all notoriously hard to predict and are becoming even less so in a changing climate and worse, often, rainfall doesn’t even fall where it can be captured. For example, a lot of precipitation paradoxically falls offshore.”
Progressive Behavior, Progressive Governance
In 2017, the city of Cape Town introduced an array of measures to curb water usage, repeatedly raising water restrictions to levels 4B (87 liters per person per day), and, as the crisis deepened, to level 6B (50 liters per person per day) where they currently stand. Municipal authorities coupled these restrictions with heavy fines to punish noncompliance and prohibited the use of municipal water resources for cleaning paved surfaces, cars, and boats. Today, even washing aircraft at Cape Town’s international airport is illegal, as is irrigation for recreational purposes and using municipal water for swimming pools. Popular culture, the media, and a host of celebrities also helped to stigmatize irresponsible or above-ration water use, and Cape Town’s Mayor Patricia de Lille published a controversial report naming and shaming the 100 most water-intensive neighborhoods in Cape Town.
Such political efforts helped Cape Town — a city that is growing at an average rate of 2.7 percent — to collectively cut its water consumption in half, from 1.2 billion liters per day in 2015 to around 505 million liters today. But more can still be done. Cape Town still exceeds water use targets by 17 percent, and many relatively straightforward policy and fiscal measures can be put in place to further influence positive and progressive behavior change.
Bernelle Verster notes an important caveat of the water crisis related to the role of South Africa’s political history and makeup: “The onset of water rations and the severity of Cape Town’s drought carries important socioeconomic considerations. Take the population of the wider Western Cape Province in South Africa — which has doubled in the last 30 years — as one example, and the advent of democracy and increasing wealth in South Africa as a second. Both developments have increased water demand to typical of the highest rainfall years and placed immense pressure on public authorities for a whole array of other services that face their own urgent needs. From housing and transport to healthcare and education, public administration must fiercely compete among one another to obtain a limited budget that services a rapidly growing South Africa”.