Tue, May 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How Cape Town was saved from running out of water

Reusing shower water, limiting toilet flushing and night-time irrigation were among measures that saved South Africa’s largest city from running dry

By Krista Mahr  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

Late last year, as the South African government faced the prospect of its largest city running out of water, it took an unprecedented gamble.

The government announced “day zero” — a moment when dam levels would be so low that it would turn off the taps in Cape Town and send people to communal water collection points.

This apocalyptic notion prompted water stockpiling and panic, caused a drop in tourism bookings and raised the specter of civil unrest.

It also worked.

After years of trying to convince residents to conserve, the aggressive campaign jolted people into action. Water use was — and still is — restricted to 50 liters per person per day. (In 2016, average daily per capita use in California was 321 liters.) Households that exceed the limit face hefty fines, or having a meter installed in their home that shuts off their water once they go over.

Capetonians started showering standing over buckets to catch and reuse that water, recycling washing machine water and limiting toilet flushes to once a day.

“It was the most talked about thing in Cape Town for months when it needed to be,” said Priya Reddy, the city’s communication director. “It was not a pretty solution, but it was not a pretty problem.”

Cape Town’s water use dropped from 600 million liters per day in the middle last year to 507 million liters per day at the end of last month. That is still short of the 450 million the city should be using, but Reddy said it could not have been achieved otherwise.

“We really did need to make it alarming enough; otherwise day zero would have happened,” he said.

The day zero campaign made us all think twice about water,” Sue Fox said, after collecting several liters of drinking water for her household from a natural spring in Newlands, an upmarket Cape Town enclave. “We’ll never, ever, ever take water for granted again.”

As global temperatures continue to rise, cities around the world will have to figure out how to do more with less water. The Western Cape’s multipronged response to its water crisis — from farming innovations to reducing urban water use to diversifying water supply sources — could serve as a blueprint for cities that find themselves, like Cape Town, looking at near-empty dams.

“We have pushed the limits far more than most other cities,” said Cape Town Executive Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, who is in charge of the city’s water crisis response. “Millions of people have responded — literally millions.”

However, it is not all positive stories of innovation, responsibility and altruism. Farmers in the drought-affected area have had to abandon as much as one-quarter of their crops, by some estimates, and tens of thousands of agricultural jobs have been lost in the fray.

“This is the one that makes me the most depressed,” Derick van Zyl said, pointing to a long row of parched trees in his apple orchard.

These trees on the Esperanto Farm produce Pink Lady apples, a coveted variety exported thousands of kilometers to the UK and Europe. They have not been watered in months.

Esperanto is one of hundreds of fruit farms in Western Cape that has had to get creative to cope with the drought. Despite Esperanto’s dams being at 28 percent capacity as of October last year, most of its orchards have been luckier than these bedraggled Pink Ladys, thanks to water-saving hacks like nighttime irrigation, mulching and concentrating water around the trees’ roots systems.

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