Running on Empty - A Look at Cape Town's Water Crisis

The water crisis has thrust the Cape Town population into a major panic. For some, this is the first we find ourselves under such circumstances. However, Cape Town has faced severe water shortages before. This is the second major water crisis to hit the city in a 100 years. It certainly is not the only city to have ever faced such a predicament.  The cities of Barcelona and Sao Paulo too have suffered from a serious bout of water scarcity and have lived to tell the tale. Even the Eastern and Northern Cape are already showing signs of severe water stress and the future of both these provinces is equally at grave risk[1].

As early as 1990, the City of Cape Town was warned of the drought- induced crisis by the Water Research Commission in an article that appeared in the Cape Times on the 26th of April of that year. It was clear then that the city’s water supply would dry-out in 17 years time[2]. It only took two consecutive dry seasons to plunge the city into a full-blown crisis. By 2016, it became clear that the next 3 years would grip the city in a prolonged drought. The DA’s internal political wars also contributed to the mishandling of the water shortage. Further, blame-shifting between the ANC-run national department for water and sanitation and the locally run DA-led province had a direct influence on both local and national government response[3]. Management of the Western Cape Water System is complex. Lack of proper co-ordination between the 3 spheres of government furthers compounds this inherently intricate system of water supply. Bulk water supply largely remains national government’s responsibility, while municipalities are tasked with the purification and distribution of potable water to end-users.

The question on everyone’s mind is how did the City get to such an unprecedented quandary, and could this catastrophe been avoided? It is a combination of factors – climate change, prolonged droughts, outdated infrastructure and gradual limited investment in the water supply infrastructure, rapid population growth thereby increasing demand for this precious and scarce resource; and good old fashion mismanagement and poor government planning[4]. The proposed solutions are a mix of strategies and technologies namely, desalination, rain harvesting, stormwater collection, groundwater recharge in addition to water restrictions. This raises another serious concern around the impacts of techno-fixes both for the environment and society at large. These solutions have come at a great expense to the city. The planning has been rushed and hasty. Often performed without extensive environmental impact assessments done on proposed water exploration sites. Here, the city has exposed the public to new risks associated with tapping groundwater sources and altering the ocean’s surface in support of desalination. There is a high likelihood that groundwater might be contaminated resulting from the exploration and drilling[5]. Of even bigger concern, is whether these solutions will alter public water consumption patterns and demand. In a few months when the water works come online, middle to upper-class Capetonians might revert to their old consumption patterns and put pressure on a still limited water resource. That said, within a short period of time, the huge surge in demand for rain harvesting and borehole drilling technologies has played a role in somewhat stabilising current water levels thereby delaying the complete shutdown of the reticulation system indefinitely.

As of May 2018, the City is endowed with six dams collectively measuring 20.9% storage on average[6]. It is rather a frightening realisation that should  dam levels reach below 13.5%, the City is forced to shut taps. This tipping point has been dubbed Day Zero - the day that Capetonians will have to queue for a ration of 25l per person per day. This day was initially set for March 2018 but after a rigorous public water demand management strategy, has since been postponed indefinitely. Water consumption and demand currently stands at 522million litres/day. This is a reduction in water consumption of approximately 43million litres/day. Despite the city receiving additional water from privately-owned dams totaling 10million litres, it still needs to drive this figure down further. The target for the City is to reduce to a consumption of 450million litres per day[7]. Fear has gripped locals who are wondering what Day Zero would be like. There are four million residents in Cape Town while there are only 200 demarcated water collection points. This means each point would service around 5000 people[8]. It remains to be seen whether these stations can accommodate such high volumes of people. It is not hard to imagine that chaos might ensue as people scrambled for their allocation of water. Furthermore, it remains unclear how this system of collection would be operated and implemented and what measures the city has in place to ensure order.

In the event day zero becomes a reality, its implications are vast and wide-ranging. Some of these ramifications include but are not limited to job losses especially in manufacturing where water is a key input in the production process, potential increase in crime & violence at collection points, public health risks posed by waterborne diseases, and the threat to food security given the rising costs of water and the strain on existing infrastructure since without water; the reticulation system is likely to corrode warranting costly infrastructure upgrades. In agriculture alone, an estimated 5000 workers are at risk of retrenchment accounting for wage losses of nearly R40million. AgriSA is already experiencing the negative impact on the local economy with reported decline of 20% in production[9]. In so far as food and nutrition is concerned, not even above average rainfall will save the region. The crisis has set this industry on a rocky path going forward.

Fortunately to every crisis there is a silver lining. The City is adamant that critical services such as hospitals, old age homes, prisons, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, clinics, children homes, strategic commercial areas and high density areas such as informal settlements and townships who are at significant risk of diseases, will be largely unaffected by the crisis. That said, planned ‘watershedding’ during peak water usage is highly likely and could have devastating impacts on these vulnerable groups who in all likelihood would not be able to make their way to the collection points[10]. In an ironic twist not often witnessed in South Africa, it is primarily the low income areas whose needs will be tended to in the eventuality of Day Zero. Most South Africans turn a blind eye to the fact that in other parts of country, it has been Day Zero since day one. Only 50% of South African homes have accessed to piped water. In informal settlements and rural areas this figure drops dramatically[11]. Townships and informal settlements in the Western Cape only consume 4% of the water supply[12]. However, according to some civil society groups such as GroundUp, these communities are often targeted for demand driven measures through the introduction of water management devices. The introduction of these water meters has been a sore point for most communities as it is viewed as the privatization of a public good. Local government at times outsources part of water service provisioning to private companies whose main interests are profit driven, thereby driving up the cost of water[13]. This undoubtedly has dire consequences on low income communities who despite receiving free basic water allocation, already use a significant portion of their income on other basic services including water.

Less priviledged communities are not the only ones who have to grapple with the impacts of the water crisis. Even more affluent communities have been riddled with consequences that have been put to them by the water shortage. The threat of Day Zero has been sobering for most and has seen a significant portion of the population uncharacteristically acting decisively around water conservation. Whatever climate dissonance that existed within these communities before, quickly dissipated when reports from the City of Cape Town put concrete dates to the looming crisis that is Day Zero. Through the prolonged drought and subsequent water crisis, this is arguably the first time that affluent parts of the population have also come to know of the physical reality of living and experiencing the brunt of climate change.

As part of deterring high water consumption, the City of Cape has now increased water tariffs by 27%[14]. In addition to a tariff hike, the City has proposed a drought levy to raise additional capital to augment investment in the City’s water schemes. This has been met with a lot of public resistance including business groups, some of whom have gotten as far as to say that placing a levy calculated on the basis of a household’s property valuation constitutes an unlawful act on the part of the City. Other concerns raised include additional costs incurred by consumers especially in the case where over the past decade, water tariffs in the City of Cape Town have rise above inflation[15]. So if the drought levy is not introduced as per desire of the populace, the City will have to explore innovative and long-term means to raise financing for any future upgrades and augmentation schemes. We waited with baited and indeed bated breath, as to how the City will tackle this dilemma going forward.

No one can argue against the fact that water service delivery is one of the biggest challenges the South African government faces in the 21st century, particularly in the context of competing societal needs for employment, education, energy to mention but a few. If we concede that access to a basic service such as water and sanitation constitute the backbone of democracy, the water crisis poses a serious constitutional implication as a basic right is infringed upon. Of course, both national government and the City of Cape Town have failed its citizens but there is no use crying over split water. It is now in all our interests to be part of the solution. Let’s face it - this water crisis is nothing short of an economic, environmental, health and social catastrophe for which the citizens will pay dearly!