Cape Town Water Crisis – An Inspirational Response

Joe Dalton believes the response to the Cape Town water crisis can be an inspiration to the World (and especially to Ireland). 

It was most appropriate that the biannual International Water Association conference on Water Losses was held in Cape Town, South Africa in early May 2018. I was there to give a talk on a water loss project in Bahrain in the Middle East, where I am currently based.

Cape Town has been subjected to a severe drought such that the city was at serious risk of running out of water. Earlier this year it was announced that “Day Zero” would be reached in April 2018. This was the point at which water levels would be so low that the city’s Water and Sanitation Department would be forced to shut off the water supply, forcing residents to collect water at communal collection points.

A lively session heard from the city’s water utility about the ongoing journey they have been on. The initial Day Zero announcement led to a slightly panicked reaction. Water consumption and sales of bottled water immediately shot up as people started hoarding water. While the utility did come in for some public criticism initially, the realisation that everyone was in this together led to a swift changing of attitudes.

What was most impressive was how Cape Town society responded. The conference was itself held in the Century City Conference Centre, which is one of the most water efficient in the World. Recycled water is used for toilet flushing and all showers have timers. As I explored the city and interacted with the people, it was obvious that knowledge of the problem was universal. I met a number of taxi drivers who were quite animated on the issue. Everywhere you went there were signs up saying to conserve water. I witnessed an artist complete a poignant and eye-catching mural on the pier of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

The latest Cape Town water conservation guidelines aim to limit consumption to 50 litres per person per day. By and large the people have responded accordingly. Water consumption has dropped by 400 million litres per day from 820 (March 2017) to 520 (March 2018). This compares with peak demand back in May 2015 of 1,200 million litres per day.

Keeping daily per capita consumption below 50 litres per person is no mean feat. Speaking to one of the staff in the Asoka restaurant in Kloof Street, which I would definitely recommend by the way, he told me that he tries to get his family to aim for 25 litres per person per day. Cape Town aims to reach and sustain an overall usage level of 450 million litres per day.

Along with demand management, the utility has embarked on pressure management, leak detection and repair, promotion of the use of recycled water and augmentation of water sources combined with effective communication campaigns. Commendably, they have managed to maintain continuous 24×7 water supply, thus avoiding the many pitfalls of intermittent supply such as contamination and damage to the integrity of the network.

One challenge the utility is facing is the reduced revenue from tariffs. The public utility receives its revenue based on metered water bills. The tariff combines a fixed charge, which has to be paid regardless of usage, with rising block tariffs with charges increasing with higher usage. As consumption has dropped, so have utility revenues. Yet there has been no reduction in operating costs. In fact, more expenditure is needed to increase availability of water.

South Africa was one of the only countries in the world to have a universal free water allowance to all households. An allowance of 6,000 litres per household per month was introduced in 2001 by the African National Congress Government following a cholera outbreak. Since then, in Cape Town and elsewhere in South Africa, the “universal” allowance has been largely abandoned for most customers while it has been increased for poor households. The Cape Town Water and Sanitation Department is currently working on revising their tariffs to ensure that they cover their operating costs, while incentivising conservation and maintaining access to the poor.

These combined measures have enabled Cape Town to postpone Day Zero indefinitely. This led some to question whether Day Zero was in fact a hoax all along. Transparency with the public was the key here. “Day Zero” was indeed an excellent marketing ploy to focus minds, conjuring up as it did an apocalyptic image of an arid city. What it meant in figurative terms was water levels below 13.5% in the city’s water supply dams. Current levels are at around 20% and do not allow for any complacency.

Even though Day Zero has been avoided for now, there is a widespread acceptance in Cape Town that attitudes to water had to change. The people of Cape Town have effectively embraced a new way of life that regards every drop as precious.

My home country of Ireland is currently (June/July 2018) undergoing a heat wave with the national water utility, Irish Water, imposing a hosepipe ban in the Dublin area. Northern Ireland Water have done the same across the six counties. When I think of the strained relationship that has existed between Irish Water and the Irish public, I am struck by the comparison with Cape Town. The utility there, while not immune from criticism, are working very hard to deal with the situation. The public response has been as good as could have been hoped for. In truth, I think that the response of Cape Town to their water crisis is quite inspirational and can be an example to the World.

Joe Dalton blogs @ Joe's Water Blog 

Follow Joe Dalton on Twitter @JoeEmmetDalton 

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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