Thinking out loud
The bigger picture beyond the water wake-up call
As we write this, Cape Town has at last woken up to the likelihood that there will not be enough water in the dams to maintain piped municipal supply until the winter rains come. It’s all anyone here can talk about; the panic is palpable.
If nearly every person cuts their water use to below 50 litres per person per day, “Day Zero”, when the taps are turned off, could be pushed back to May. The odds of emergency supplementary supply projects and early winter rain saving us from Day Zero are low. Agricultural allocation from city supply dams has already been cut.
Essential water saving depends on huge behaviour changes. During the Australian drought from 2000 to 2010, best average use was 129 litres per person per day. More than half of Cape Town residents are managing to meet the new 50-litre limit. We fixate on water meters, use taps at a dribble, take one-minute showers standing in a plastic tub and collect washingmachine grey water to flush toilets. But essential restrictions have come late and not everyone complies. Within the next four months, the city may have to switch to distribution of rationed 25 litres per person per day at 200 collection points to ensure our survival.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Of course there is a flurry of blame. In Cape Town, finger-pointing has focused on government not putting more supply infrastructure in place for a city that has nearly doubled in size since 1995.
The truth is there are no more major rivers to be dammed. Our rivers are already overabstracted, encroached upon and degraded. It would be shortsighted to further harm their ability to keep water clean and remove pollutants, to soften flood events, to sustain fishery breeding grounds in estuaries, and to supply water across the landscape. And there are no easy or quick alternatives to surface water.
The City of Cape Town estimates desalination plants supplying 450 megalitres per day would cost R15 billion to build. Add maintenance and energy costs, and expert international advice to focus on groundwater seems wise. The necessary first steps to tap into aquifers started more than a decade ago in the form of exploration and baseline data collection. Emergency use is being set in motion, but the volume of water that can be extracted is unknown. Even if it turns out to be enough to supply the city, bulk abstraction will have to be ramped up carefully over years to ensure that yields are sustainable, and that there are no unanticipated consequences for ecosystems and landscapes supported by groundwater.
Even with good rains, severe water restrictions are likely to be the new normal for at least the next two years in Cape Town. The graph below shows water levels of the dams in the Western Cape Water Supply System. Year-on-year capacity has plummeted over the last three years of drought (Theewaterskloof Dam supplies nearly 50% of Cape Town’s water). If the drought breaks, we’ll still be starting next summer with less water than last year. So lack of rain is only part of the problem. In the Summer 2017/18 issue of Platteland, James Reeler wrote about global climate change. We might not know exactly how weather will change in any particular place, but we are certain that increased atmospheric CO2 will change rainfall and temperature patterns. We know there will be even more extreme and frequent floods and droughts. In a world of increasing climate unpredictability, ours is a region with no water safety net.
There are no quick solutions. We have to fundamentally change the way we live and manage water. Instead of asking nature to deliver far more water and risk disaster at times when it cannot, we need to put more effort into environmental care and long-term solutions.
“We know there will be even more extreme and frequent floods and droughts. In a world of increasing climate unpredictability, we are a region with no water safety net.”
LOOK AFTER ECOLOGICAL INFRASTRUCTURE IN RURAL AREAS
In a water-scarce region, natural areas are not wasted development opportunities; they are water factories, catching, storing, cleaning and releasing a resource far more valuable than money. We need to recognise that, as we degrade systems, their ability to buffer climate variability and provide base water production during dry times is harmed. This means supporting better implementation of existing policy and law, and supporting government in regulating environmental impacts that harm ecological infrastructure.
We know that protecting water catchments and providing naturally vegetated buffers around wetland and river systems slow run-off, so water is released continuously from the landscape rather than rushing away after rain. River buffers prevent erosion and sedimentation, and limit agrochemical and pollutant contamination. Despite good environmental policy and legislation, we still plough and strip vegetation right up to river banks and harm wetland systems. Unsustainable agricultural expansion into natural habitats also puts immense pressure on surface and groundwater. We have to recognise that even private land needs to be managed for common good.
Invasive trees use huge amounts of water compared with indigenous vegetation. Cumulative effects on dams and river catchments are immense, especially during drier periods. The national Working for Water programme was founded on evidence that it is cheaper and more effective to free up water by clearing invasive trees than by increasing dam capacity. But the programme and private landowners have barely made a dent in the extent of invasive trees in our dam and aquifer catchments.
SWITCH FOCUS FROM NEW WATER SOURCES TO REDUCING DEMAND
In the Western Cape and Gauteng, more than 90% of people live in towns and cities. About 64% of South Africans now live in urban areas. Good urban planning is crucial to become more resilient, to resist disaster and to bounce back after environmental shocks.
Pay the real cost of water The simplest solution is that water pricing should include the cost of looking after the landscapes that produce water. Strongly tiered pricing above a basic allowance will automatically drive more sustainable use patterns.
Stop low-density sprawling There is a direct link between patterns of resource consumption and the form of cities and towns. Resilient, happier societies tend to live in dense cities and towns surrounded by open agricultural and natural landscapes. South Africans have become accustomed to living in lowdensity suburbia, and new residential developments continue this trend. Even the government’s housing programme produces monotonous dormitory towns. Extensions at the edge of urban areas demand new service infrastructure, increasing footprints and driving up the cost of housing. It’s not just higher water use – new development also displaces agricultural land and biodiversity, and increases traffic congestion and exhaust emissions.
Build sustainably We need to buy into better-planned new neighbourhoods and live more densely, in double-storey houses or apartments, close to public transport and our places of work and play. We need to share open spaces. New residential developments must have well-designed versions of the water-saving infrastructure we are improvising to deal with the crisis, such as rain tanks, on-site grey-water treatment and reticulation, and separate plumbing for toilet cisterns. Watering gardens and flushing toilets with drinking water should stop. We will at least have to get comfortable with doing what most developed countries have been doing for decades: treating and reusing wastewater instead of discharging it into the sea. Strengthen our communities Neighbourhoods are already taking disaster mitigation in their own hands, forming street committees and WhatsApp groups. We need to look after the vulnerable and less resourced, including the disabled, elderly and those without transport. Beyond the crisis, we must retain our new community bonds and be active voices in local decision-making. THIS CRISIS is just a particularly severe microcosm of the bigger picture countrywide. By June of 2016, widespread drought was so severe that eight of our nine provinces were declared disaster areas. This situation serves as an example for the rest of the world. Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It is our hope that this is an opportunity for for us to realise that global climate change and local natural systems do have a direct impact on our wellbeing, and to learn to protect ecological infrastructure and create resilient supply-and-use patterns within the limits of natural resources.