When a city with millions of inhabitants faces the threat of water running out

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Cape Town is the first modern city in the world that is faced with the threat of water running out. The effective date could be pushed to next year with difficulty – but the city is being criticised for its crisis management.

It is 11 o'clock in the morning and Eric Mbalane has already hauled half a ton of water. The T-shirt sticks to his thin, wiry body, his face looks tired. He works 12 hours per day. But the 31-year-old wipes the sweat from his brow in the blazing sun and says: "I am delighted that I can help."

Hundreds of residents in Cape Town line up at the natural spring in the centre of the city every day for water. The casual worker helps the frail and infirm to carry water to the car. Some have baskets with empty bottles, others have large canisters. They are allowed to take a maximum of 25 litres, monitored by security staff. Whoever wants more must get in the queue again.

Nightmare scenario

Mbalane sees himself as a "campaigner against Day Zero", as he says, even though the 15 francs in tips per day is only enough for the necessities. After three years of devastating drought, in January Cape Town declared "Day Zero" as the date on which most taps in the city with just under 4 million inhabitants will be switched off. It was the first large city worldwide to face such a nightmare scenario. Initially the talk had been of the middle of April, but the deadline has now been pushed out to next year. This is thanks to savings by households and farms, as well as new installations.

A prerequisite for that is at least average rainfalls, the situation remains serious in any case. The six water reservoirs, which supply Cape Town, are currently only 23 percent full. If the level drops to 13.5 percent, the majority of inhabitants must queue up at roughly 200 distribution stations for 25 litre rations.

Cape Town's largest reservoir dries up

The water shortage in Cape Town would definitely be more serious than in other cities around the globe. Rome was forced to introduce water restrictions last summer, in Mexico City many citizens only have tap water at certain times of the day. And in 2015 the Brazilian capital São Paulo had water supplies for less than 20 days, then it finally started to rain.

Why Cape Town is suffering from an extreme water shortage

There are already strict restrictions in place in Cape Town, a maximum of 50 litres per person and day are allowed to be consumed – not even a third of the Swiss average consumption. In some areas the city has reduced the water pressure to the extent that many households no longer have any water. Notorious large consumers face fines of up to 400 francs and are forced to install devices which disconnect the water supply if the upper limit is exceeded.


Pressure to conserve water

The crisis management has met with criticism; the city exaggerates the gravity of the situation is one such criticism. The tourism sector complains about the deterrent effect on visitors, agricultural associations predict 20 percent smaller harvests due to lower water rations. Many citizens are protesting against the recent massive increase in water rates. It is not clear why "Day Zero" could be postponed so quickly to 2019, even though the reduction of consumption to 450 million litres per day envisaged by the city could not be achieved. At present 511 million litres of water are consumed on a daily basis. And hardly any of the new installations for the treatment of seawater or groundwater are operational.

There is reason to believe that the city dealt with the much exaggerated rhetoric in order to force its somewhat sceptical citizens to conserve water. Successfully, because the actual consumption was halved within a year. The situation obviously also justifies whistle-blowing. Whereas only the names of the streets with the highest consumption were published last year, now one can check each individual property on a website to see if the requirement is met – my neighbour, the waster.

The South African city has been suffering from a severe water shortage for months. It is expected the taps will be turned off in June. Image: A man fills his container with water from a dirty river near Cape Town (2 February). (Image: Mike Hutchings / Reuters)

It seems to be the lesser evil that crazy conspiracy theories are now emerging. The ruling Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Western Cape province exaggerated the water crisis in order to be able to conclude a multi-million contract with Israel for reprocessing plants, claimed one politician in opposition. A delegate of the African National Congress (ANC) spoke about the "Jewish Mafia" in the provincial parliament. Now: There is no such contract – and the low level of the water reservoir simply cannot be denied.

The situation could be much less dramatic with a long-term plan. In 2007 South Africa's Ministry of Water Resources warned that Cape Town could no longer solely rely on the rainfall-dependent dams, but must invest in the pumping of groundwater and desalination plants. Many of the corresponding investments must be approved at a national level – and bigger budgets will only be available for this purpose from 2020. In Cape Town itself it is preferred to use existing funds on other urgent projects, such as the development of accommodation facilities and infrastructure in the rapidly growing slums.

Cape Town threatened with Day Zero due to drought

The water reservoirs were absolutely full in 2014 after abundant rainfall. The city celebrated that it did not have to expand capacities despite a 30 percent increase in the population since 2000 because it used the existing resources more efficiently. Repaired pipelines, the installation of thousands of water meters and increased water rates ensured a lower per capita consumption. The C40, an association of cities, presented Cape Town with an award for the successful adaptation to climate change.

Money helps

Now it appears that emergency measures are treacherous. The construction of a desalination plant is way behind schedule because poor local residents are demanding more local involvement in the construction work. And the boss of one drilling company says that it could complete five boreholes per day instead of one, but the city cannot issue the permits quick enough.

The crisis also reveals the enormous social differences in the city. For instance, many big income earners pay 2,000 francs (converted) for a tanker full of water from other areas in South Africa not affected by the drought in order to fill the pool. Whoever can afford it can tap groundwater on their property with a borehole or tries to remain as independent of the city's water supply as possible with rain tanks. In the context of climate change more and more droughts are expected on the Cape of Good Hope.

Such measures are expensive and unaffordable in the townships. But around 40 percent of the inhabitants live in the slums. The government of Cape Town has promised that it will not turn off the water here - as well as in hospitals and schools. A sensible measure, after all most of the inhabitants there are already dependent on shared taps.

NZZ, When a city with millions of inhabitants faces the threat of water running out: https://www.nzz.ch/panorama/bis-zum-letzten-wassertropfen-ld.1367184, retrieved on 25.06.2019.

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