The fore­cast for hu­man be­hav­iour

What will hap­pen when the taps are turned off in Cape Town?

Sunday Times - - Insight - By CLAIRE KEE­TON Illustration: David Maclennan

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’

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