Thu, Jan 25, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Cape Town could run out of water

By Mihir Sharma  /  Bloomberg View

Tree trunks, which were submersed when the dam was full, stand in the critically low Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, on Tuesday. Theewaterskloof Dam is the single biggest dam supplying water to Cape Town, which might become the first major city in recent history to run out of water.

Photo: EPA

April 22, Earth Day, might have a bit of extra significance this year. It might be the day that, for the first time, a great world city runs out of water.

On that day, according to the local government of Cape Town, water in the reservoirs that feed this most beautiful of coastal cities is to drop below critical levels and stand at 13.5 percent of capacity.

Taps are to run dry in homes and businesses, and residents might have to start lining up “between metal fences, waiting to fill up containers from standpipes.”

In this Mad Max-style dystopia, they are then to get a maximum of 25 liters per person, as the city government desperately tries to reduce water consumption to half of what it was just two years ago.

The first things you see when you land at Cape Town’s gleaming airport are signs imploring visitors to save water. You walk out through a disturbing bit of public art: Eighty-seven 1 liter bottles hanging from the ceiling, a reminder that nobody should use more than that amount per day.

Just hours after I left South Africa, that installation might have become even more disturbing: Thirty-seven of those bottles should have been taken down, as Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that the new requirement, starting on Thursday next week, was just 50 liters a day.

Punitive new tariffs are also coming into force that would increase water bills for high-end consumers more than seven times over.

It is far from certain how the more stringent restrictions will work. Still, it is inspiring to see how hard much of the city has been working to save water. Hotel bathtubs have had their plungers removed. Many wealthy residents drive around in expensive, but dusty cars, which have not been washed for months.

On some level, the crisis mentality that has taken hold in Cape Town is the sort we should all be exhibiting when facing the inevitable disruptions of climate change.

However, Cape Town’s battle to keep its water taps running should also serve as a warning. This is, after all, one of the most naturally blessed parts of the world; how did it get to this point?

Climate change has a great deal to do with it, of course. The lush Western Cape province has had to do without rain for three years now; the six big dams that feed its water pipes were at 28 percent capacity on Friday last week.

Meanwhile, investment has lagged the crisis. Only a fraction of this stored water is usable, because many South African dams have not been desludged for years.

The distribution system is equally buggy: A 2012 study of 132 municipalities suggested that 37 percent of water use brought in no revenue — meaning less cash for reinvestment — and one quarter was lost to leaks.

Cape Town’s population has also grown by more than 55 percent in the past two decades, even as its dam capacity has increased only marginally.

Another lesson is that unpreparedness for climate change is often the result of a dysfunctional politics that ignores clear warnings.

The Western Cape and the Cape Town municipality are run by the Democratic Alliance, while the national government is run by the African National Congress (ANC). This political divide has resulted in an entirely underwhelming response to a predictable problem.

If we are going to allocate blame, to my mind the largest share accrues to the national government. In the late 2000s, Cape Town’s municipal government was warned that it would need new water sources; it worked instead on a sensible demand strategy that focused on infrastructure repair, water pressure management and so on. The city met its water saving target three years in advance.

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