The forecast for human behaviour
What will happen when the taps are turned off in Cape Town?
Like an imaginary monster, Day Zero keeps moving closer. Except Day Zero is real. There are still more questions than answers about how the proposed water cuts will be implemented, but it seems inevitable that in April, or sooner, most of Cape Town’s taps will be turned off.
The biggest question is: will it bring the city to the brink of collapse?
When Brazil’s financial centre, São Paulo, began to face daily water shutoffs in 2015, some residents dug through the floors of houses in hopes of striking underground water. Many collected and hoarded water in open containers that became incubators for mosquitoes carrying dengue fever. Protesters took to the streets and the authorities, fearing anarchy in a city of 11 million, considered calling in the military to prevent a war over resources.
What will happen in Cape Town? When a natural disaster such as fire or flood strikes, communities pull together. But those are unforeseen emergencies. In an extended period of scarce resources for which individuals compete on unequal terms, conflict is as likely as unity and understanding.
Martine Visser, research chair in climate change at the University of Cape Town’s school of economics, says: “I think we will see the worst in people and the best in people emerge during this time. I am sure situations of conflict will arise, but I think that, as the crisis escalates, people will also start pulling together.
“Some people are inherently self-interested and will be looking out for themselves. But in neighbourhoods or communities where there are already strong social networks, such as WhatsApp groups, neighbourhood watches, stokvels and burial societies, it will be easier to mobilise groups to help each other, whether it be transporting water from collection points, sharing borehole water or digging sewage pits for dry toilets.”
Kevin Winter of UCT’s Future Water Institute says: “We need to make sure the city survives, and right now the only means the city has to push Day Zero further away is to get people down to 50 litres a day.”
Once Day Zero arrives, the health hazards are obvious, from diarrhoea to outbreaks of cholera. “Hygiene will be the real tipping factor to keep buildings and large institutions open,” Winter says. “Toilets and pipelines will get blocked. There is a lot more potential for raw sewage to flow into roads, public areas, rivers and wetlands.”
Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, says the city “will employ means to flush the reticulation system at appropriate points” and Richard Bosman, Cape Town’s executive director for safety and security, says water will continue to flow to “areas of high economic activity”.
There is still no map specifying who will and will not have running water. The CBD and “strategic commercial areas” will remain connected and schools will stay open. About 400 of the province’s 900 schools have boreholes and plans are being made for water storage and distribution to the rest.
Bosman says: “High-density areas with significant risk of increased burden of disease, such as informal settlements, and critical services, such as hospitals, where possible, will continue to receive drinking water through normal channels.”
For the rest, people will have to queue at 200 collection points to collect their 25 litres a day. No doubt wheelbarrow and trolley entrepreneurs will roll up to offer their services.
JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security and social services, says: “Even if these water collection points run as smoothly as possible, the act of collecting water will be a massive inconvenience. Everyone has to save water now.”
As Cape Town faces the possibility of being the world’s first city to turn off the taps to homes entirely, possibly for months, there is a run on bottled water, containers, camping showers and storage tanks.
Some water users defend excess consumption on the grounds that they have boreholes. Cape Town has 22 000 boreholes registered to date and the number is rising.
But these use groundwater, which is a national asset. To augment its bulk water supply, the city is also drawing groundwater from the Cape Flats, Table Mountain and Atlantis aquifers. Depleting groundwater, which recharges with rain, could harm rivers, trees and the environment.
Winter says trees and plants could die, and dust and temperatures rise, further aggravating already unpleasant conditions in a dry city.
Scenario planner and author Clem Sunter says: “The game has changed. This drought is no longer a one-in-1 000-years event. Climate change is no longer a quiet rise in temperature and sea levels. We need to discuss living under the new extreme weather events.”
Cities are the most at risk because of their concentrated populations and assets, says Mark New, director of UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative.
“A drought like the current one has been a nightmare at the back of the mind of many water managers, but it has been hard to get political attention until there is a crisis,” says New. “This crisis has driven more sensitive water-use behaviours. The trick is to make this permanent so we can reduce stress on the system on an ongoing basis.”
Christine Colvin, WWF’s freshwater programmes manager, says: “Actually, Cape Town has access to enough water to get through the crisis. It’s not just out of taps; there are pools, boreholes, wells and rainwater tanks. But it will require a revolution in cooperation and understanding by people that this is not ‘their’ water, it is shared water.”
‘I think we will see the worst in people and the best in people. I am sure situations of conflict will arise, but I think that as the crisis escalates, people will start pulling together’