In our beautiful new May issue, we examine how South Africa’s second-largest city has been making headlines over the past year as the worst drought in 100 years worsened and reservoirs became depleted to the point of crisis. Stringent water restrictions are now in place and residents are being urged to slash their water consumption to prevent Day Zero – the day water will no longer flow when they turn on their taps.
It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening to us in New Zealand, or anywhere else in the developed world, let alone how we’d cope. Indeed, in Cape Town the gravity of the situation affecting the city and surrounding farmland doesn’t seem to have hit home – less than half its 3.7 million people have reduced their water consumption at all. This is despite strong government warnings that unless every person cuts their usage to 50 litres per person per day (enough for just a 90-second shower, one toilet flush, and enough to do laundry and the day’s cooking), Day Zero will be upon them … within months.
The taps will be turned off when the water levels in reservoirs drop below 13.5% (they are currently less than a quarter full). Instead of water flowing unchecked into homes, 25 litres per person would be available at collection points, a logistical nightmare for any city to contemplate.
But Cape Town has had to do more than contemplate it – city officials are having to actively plan for it. “We are bracing for impact,” Western Cape Premier Helen Zille proclaimed in January. Hospitals and key commercial areas would still have access to water, and water tankers would be sued to deliver water to vulnerable groups such as aged-care facilities. Whether the crisis will be averted before Day Zero (pushed back from April 2018 to August 2018 in the hope rain arrives) is anyone’s guess. When it comes to predicting rain, Premier Zille says they are “flying blind”, with previous forecasting models proving “useless” in the face of climate change
Many tax-paying Capetonians have been indignant about the situation, claiming more should have been done earlier to avert the looming disaster. Global Change Institute’s Dr David W. Olivier says it’s a mistake to assume the City of Cape Town saw the drought coming and failed to prepare for it. “Climate trends over the past 40 years gave no indication of the drought’s timing, intensity or duration,” Olivier says. Dams were overflowing as recently as 2014 and weather forecasts gave no indication that the 2015 drought would continue as long as it has, he says. A University of Cape Town study also found that the odds of the drought carrying over into 2017 were less than one in a thousand.
Although small desalination plants are being built in a hurry and new means to extract groundwater are underway, Olivier says cutting household water consumption is the “most important, fastest and most cost-effective way to avoid Day Zero”. Building a desalination plant big enough to supply the city with its water needs isn’t the answer, he says. Not only would it cost 15 billion rand to build and millions more to maintain, the drought could well be over by the time it’s completed. “The city would be left with a very expensive white elephant,” Olivier says.
Day Zero has been pushed back from April to August 2018 in the hope that people heed water usage warnings and rain arrives. If it doesn’t, it isn’t just households that will be affected. “Even if we manage a disaster of this magnitude reasonably smoothly, our economy will take a terrible knock; it already has,” says Premier Zille. The economy of the Western Cape province relies primarily on tourism and agriculture – both water-intensive sectors. “The crisis associated with large-scale job losses and hunger would greatly exacerbate the catastrophe of dry taps,” she says.
Close to Home
According to the United Nations, every continent on earth is already being affected by the scarcity of water. We all know populations are increasing, but it may come as a surprise that for the past 100 years water use has been increasing at more than twice the rate as the population has been growing. The UN predicts water scarcity will become even more of a problem in the future as cities grow and climate change takes its toll.
Water may cover 70% of the planet but only three% of the world’s water is fresh water that we can use, and 7.6 billion people rely on it to survive. By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.
In New Zealand
Too much water can be as much a problem as too little when it comes to a city’s water system. A Deep South National Science Challenge report released in October 2017 found New Zealand’s stormwater and wastewater systems are ill-equipped to handle the challenges that climate change will bring – “increasingly severe risks” of extreme rainfall, storm surges, rising sea levels, and yes, even drought. “The way climate change is predicted to affect our stormwater and wastewater will have a considerable impact on many aspects of NZ life, including health, disaster resilience, drinking water, ecology and transport, not to mention how flooding or infrastructure failure will impact on communities,” says Waikato University’s Professor Iain White, co-author of the report.
A 2017 report by Melbourne Water found that demand coulde easily outstrip supply in as little as 10 years. Melbourne’s population is expected to double by 2065 – causing a water crisis within just 50 years. Environment Victoria’s Juliet Le Feuvre says Melbourne really needs to take some action, and soon, if it is to meet its future water needs. “We are already squeezing our river systems dry and relying on expensive and energy-intensive desalination,” Le Feuvre says. “This is not the answer. We need to be making use of every drop of water that is available to us and capitalise on the untapped resources that are literally under our noses – storm water and recycled water. At present they are being wasted down the drain and out to sea.”
Finding an Alternative
Better handling of wastewater could solve not just potential problems in New Zealand and Australia, but across the planet. A major UNESCO study released in 2017 reports that wastewater is gaining momentum as a reliable alternative source of water, shifting the focus of wastewater management from ‘treatment and disposal’ to ‘reuse, recycle and resource recovery’ – not a problem in need of a solution, in other words, but rather part of the solution to water scarcity. “The outlook is undeniably optimistic, provided action is taken now,” says UN World Water Assessment Programme director and study co-author Stefan Uhlenbrook. “With so little wastewater being treated and even less being used, the potential opportunities from exploiting appropriately treated wastewater as a resource are enormous.”