Cape Town water taps running dry

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South Africa’s second biggest city averts a water crisis—for now

Mohammed Allie’s wife has given up showers while Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city after Johannesburg, contemplates life without a drop of water in its taps. Allie, a BBC correspondent, related his wife’s experience with the shrinking supply of water, caused by an historic three-year drought.

“[My wife] boils about 1.5 litres of water and mixes it with about a litre of tap water to have her daily wash, while the rest of us catch the slow-running water in a bucket for re-use in the toilet cistern.”

Masimba Tafirenyika: Director, United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria. Pretoria, South Africa.

Masimba Tafirenyika: Director, United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria. Pretoria, South Africa.

Mr. Allie joins over three million Capetonians taking extreme steps to save water in a last-ditch attempt to evade disaster, or Day Zero—when dam levels hit 13.5%, a level too low to keep taps running.  The plan is when Day Zero finally strikes, residents would have to line up at about 200 designated water collection points monitored by security to get their daily allocation of 25 litres per person.

Since the beginning of the year, Day Zero has been a moving target. Originally set for 11 May, it was later pushed to 1 June and then to July 9. Thanks to the residents’ cooperation with strict water-rationing measures, the day of reckoning is unlikely to happen this year, Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), announced in March.

Tucked at the southern tip of the African continent, where the Atlantic Ocean meets its younger sibling, the Indian Ocean, Cape Town—one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations—is joining the list of global cities affected by serious water shortages attributed to climate change.

As the clock ticks and the seasonal rains refuse to arrive, Cape Town has launched a flurry of measures to avert disaster. These range from setting up recycling and desalination plants to extracting groundwater by drilling boreholes as well as imposing tighter restrictions on water usage. The measures, however, are late in coming. The city’s population has grown by more than 80% over the past 20 years to over four million, while infrastructure has lagged behind.

Averting Day Zero

Desalination plants, which process seawater to make it drinkable, are expensive and require time to set up. According to the Sunday Times, a national weekly, a large desalination plant costs between $417 million and $1.5 billion. By the end of February, the city had completed more than two-thirds of the work required to install four desalination plants of varying sizes.

According to a local environmental advocacy group, Philippi Horticultural Area Campaign, the city council failed to invest in the mass infrastructure necessary to meet the water demands of an expanding city. The group opposes desalination plants, maintaining that “desalination is regressive—its cost will be borne disproportionately by the poor, and its technologies are already outmoded and superseded by more sustainable environmentally proactive methods of water conservation.”

Compounding the crisis caused by drought is the fact that, according to scientists at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town’s surrounding seawater is contaminated by chemicals. Their report last year drew attention to “the probable presence of pathogens, and literally thousands of chemicals of emerging concern” in the city’s seawater. The researchers discovered “high levels of microbial pollution and 15 pharmaceutical and common household chemicals” in various samples taken from the city’s Granger Bay. City authorities dispute the findings.

Some experts view the water crisis in terms of equity and justice. Cape Town is the richest city in South Africa, a country with one of the worst income inequalities in the world. Many of the country’s wealthiest citizens and some of the world’s best-known celebrities own properties in the city’s posh suburbs dotted with impressive mansions and surrounded by acres of lush gardens.

For the city’s poor residents, Day Zero will be nothing new. In Khayelitsha, the largest and fastest-growing township in South Africa, tens of thousands of people have no access to piped water, according to Beyond Our Borders, a local advocacy group.

Anele Goba, a 34-year-old resident of Khayelitsha, told Independent Online, a South African news site, that she had little sympathy for the alarm of the rich. “‘Day Zero’ would give them a taste of how slum dwellers live,” she said. “Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Musa Gwebani, a project manager with the Social Justice Coalition, says that, “For the first time, everyone in Cape Town has to live with water restrictions that are a daily reality for all slum dwellers.”

Such reflections of the less fortunate have been picked up by Moody’s Investors Service, the US-based credit ratings agency, which warns that due to Cape Town’s “acute income inequality,” the water crisis poses a possible threat to social order.

Cape Town’s water crisis has the potential to spark political fights in the run-up to national elections in 2019. The city’s mayor, Patricia de Lille, is a senior member of the opposition DA. Her predecessor, Helen Zille, a former DA leader, is the premier of the Western Cape Province, the only one of the country’s nine provinces not under the control of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

Early this year, the city council accused the ANC government of bureaucratic foot-dragging in declaring the drought a national disaster. After months of a political debate between DA and ANC senior officials, the government declared the drought a national disaster in February.

In his 2018 budget speech, embattled finance minister Malusi Gigaba (now minister of home affairs) allocated $500 million dollars to Western Cape’s drought relief efforts. For its part, Cape Town increased its capital expenditure budget on water projects to $583 million in 2018 from $492 million in 2017.

Economic impact

Cape Town’s water crisis has affected not only the political dynamics of the city but also, in various ways, its economy and sanitation, with effects ranging from climbing borrowing costs and sinking revenue from water rates to public health risks from poor sanitation. In 2017 the share of the city’s municipal water revenue to its operating income was as much as 10%, notes the Moody’s report. Released at the end of January, the report did not imply a review of the city’s credit rating, but if such a review happens, it could affect Cape Town’s bond ratings.

“The city will lose a portion of this [water] revenue and will have increased operational costs from crisis management policies and programmes, and implementation of water supply projects,” says Moody’s. A decline in agriculture and tourism, the city’s major industries and its biggest water guzzlers, would increase job losses, which would be a blow to tax revenues.

According to estimates from the government’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the impact of the drought on the economy of the Western Cape Province will be $492 million, with exports expected to decline by between 13% and 20% this year. The province’s agriculture sector accounts for almost a quarter of South Africa’s total value from agriculture.

Surprisingly, the city’s property market has largely escaped unscathed—for now. Richard Day, the regional head of Pam Golding Properties, told Property24, an online real estate company, of buyer hesitancy recently, but added that this was largely due to property prices as well as recent political and economic uncertainty. He said he had not seen any signs that residents might soon be relocating from the province permanently because of the water crisis.

El Niño–related droughts

Cape Town’s water crisis is a symptom of a much wider and more prolonged problem facing not only South Africa but the whole Southern African region. Over the past several years, the region has watched with frustration as the effects of El Niño–related droughts took their toll. South Africa has suffered one of the worst meteorological droughts (dry weather patterns) since 1904, with the average rainfall from 2014 through 2016 dropping to 403mm from 608mm, according to the Mail & Guardian, a national weekly.

The Food and Agriculture Organization says 45 countries, including South Africa, are experiencing critical water shortages. And according to UN Environment estimates, Cape Town’s population almost doubled between 1995 and 2018, while its dam storage increased by a paltry 15% over the same period.

Given the pace of climate change and the El Niño effect, South Africa’s rainfall patterns are likely to worsen. The only options left for large cities like Cape Town are to develop water infrastructure that meets the needs of a growing population and for residents to change their water usage.

“Less frequent rainfall and a changing climate mean that drier conditions are likely to become the new normal,” says UN Environment.

By Masimba Tafirenyika


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June 2018