Last year, thanks to a fibre contractor who could not read city plans, I faced 72 hours with no water. Fixing two large bursts was seemingly not a huge priority for Johannesburg Water, as it only affected two adjoining cul-de-sacs. A day is doable, two is a stretch. Three becomes a chore. I cannot imagine what weeks will feel like, lugging drums of water around the house, washing dishes with the barest minimum, letting laundry pile up.
This is the reality the whole of Cape Town faces. Except they can’t just go shower at gym on the way to work, like many middle class South Africans do when they’re faced with water interruptions. Until now, only four out of every ten households have managed to get their daily consumption to below 87 litres per person. And that already requires effort and discipline. From February 1, that threshold nearly halves to 50 litres. What will the compliance figure be then?
During last week, the city and its drought response team (where accountabilities and personnel were shuffled as part of the saga in which Mayor Patricia De Lille finds herself embroiled), lurched from “we may get through this and avoid Day Zero” to “we are past the point of no return”.
That this changed so suddenly and so emphatically is cause for great concern. I argued on Twitter last week that the water crisis was easily an emergency six months ago and that Cape Town had reached the point of no return three months ago.
Instead, we’ve had a city pleading almost apologetically with residents to “Think Water”. Those with the means have sunk boreholes and continue irrigating sprawling lawns and gardens (the thing about boreholes is that, during droughts, they dry up!). Many swimming pools remain full, particularly those on the Atlantic Seaboard, which I am willing to guess are not topped up from boreholes. Life for 200 000 households has continued as if there’s no risk of quite literally running out of water.
Any effective drought management strategy needs only one thing: a large-scale change in behaviour. That the City of Cape Town has only managed to get 40% of households under the daily target is an outright failure. Major cities have skirted running out of water during severe droughts by forcing down consumption (with the associated luck as far as rainfall is concerned). Recent examples include Australia’s high-profile Millennium drought, as well as those in Spain and California in the past decade-and-a-half. In 2007/2008, Barcelona (5.5 million people) faced as acute a situation as Cape Town does now (with just more than four million people).
The only way Cape Town escapes Day Zero, as Western Cape Premier Helen Zille made clear in her detailed update published on Daily Maverick on Monday, is if household consumption is further reduced and the city skirts the trigger when dam levels reach 13.5% of capacity. With an almighty effort, the city may yet avoid a scenario where taps are switched off and water starts being distributed at 200 points across the metro.
Why has it been left to the premier to provide this leadership?
And how did the city get here? Why has it not, like other metros, fitted every single offending household with a water management device. The eThekwini Municipality installed throttling devices (a small valve that substantially reduces water-flow) to great success in the northern regions of Durban a few years ago. In certain areas where that was not practical, it ran ‘water-shedding’ with water only available for a certain period each day. This forced water consumption downwards. Instead, there’s a chorus of polite pleas from a city seemingly fearful of offending this constituency.
And the city has hardly been harsh on businesses (it only started outlawing the use of potable water at car washes six months ago!). Businesses should’ve been forced to drive down water usage aggressively and – importantly – this should’ve been reported on transparently every month. Instead, commercial use (like residential use) remains mostly a black hole. There are a multitude of ways for businesses to use less water, without their viability being threatened.
Why has South African Breweries been the first – and, so far, only – corporate to “step up to the plate” to the province’s (not city’s!) call for help? There are a dozen other obvious contenders to help? Coca-Cola? Clover? Shoprite? Bakeries which have bread trucks stretching into every corner of the city and the province every day?
Why has there not been a weekly crisis meeting with senior involvement from the 100 largest businesses in Cape Town? And if the city had let the crisis get away from them as they so clearly have, why have the top employers in the metro not taken it upon themselves to lead an initiative such as this?
Its largely been ‘everyone for themselves’ and, by and large, calls were made at the very last moment by businesses to ensure they are largely self-sustainable. Tsogo Sun’s reverse osmosis and borehole plants at the majority of its Cape hotels will be in place before Day Zero, while Old Mutual’s waste water filtration plant at its Mutualpark campus should be completed in April. These are two high-profile examples, but why weren’t these decisions made a year ago.
All I’ve heard over the past six months from a number of well-placed people in Cape Town is a common refrain: no one knows what’s going on and no one knows what’s going to happen if it continues like this.
The mayor’s dire warning last week seems to have jolted people into action, with panic stockpiling of bottled drinking water gathering pace.
Cape Town will get through this, even though it may get a lot worse before things return to ‘normal’. The key will be to ensure long-term “resilience” (a word the politicians love) by firstly augmenting bulk supply from dams with other sources, and secondly by ensuring long-term demand curves remain as flat as they have been. Cape Town’s largely excelled at the latter, despite an explosion in population driven by semigration. But it’s almost completely ignored the former, and six of its first seven projects to secure water from alternative sources are behind schedule.
It cannot bank on an endless supply of water from dams, run by the wholly disinterested and possibly bankrupt Department of Water and Sanitation. Sure, there’ll be rain and there’ll be bulk water supply in years of plenty, but changing climate patterns has made rainfall very unpredictable. Cape Town is hurtling towards day zero, but other metros aren’t far behind. The crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay is as bad, and rainfall so far this summer in KwaZulu-Natal has not been promising. We easily forget how dire the situation was in Gauteng just 14 months ago. (Smaller cities, like Kimberley and Grahamstown, have endured far worse in recent years, but these were wholesale maintenance failures, not directly drought-related).
Cyril should add a plan to get South Africa to act like the water-scarce country it is (much like Botswana and Namibia to the north), to his already overflowing to-do list. Or else, very quickly, these large-scale crises will be the norm.
Hilton Tarrant works at immedia. He can still be contacted at email@example.com.