Cape Town – Where Are They Now?

Coming up to the end of May and we’re well below our average annual rainfall in Perth and Sydney is about to implement level 1 water restrictions for the first time in a decade. Now seems like as good a time as ever to revisit drought..

A while back we had a look at the water situation in Cape Town, where residents were facing a complete exhaustion of the city’s drinking water supply; a deadline they were terming ‘Day Zero’. Cape Town were looking down the barrel of becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water.

Photos of residents queuing to collect water from communal taps and of cracked earth where the Theewaterskloof Dam once was splashed across news websites. The world got a glimpse of what true water panic in a major city looks like.

People collect drinking water from pipes fed by groundwater aquifers in Cape Town.

Just over a year on and Cape Town has survived through the worst of a historic drought without having to shut off the taps.

So how’d they do it?

The catastrophe that was Day Zero was averted at the last minute through a combination of aggressive water conservation and efficiency campaigns, intensive water restrictions, and some desperately needed rainfall!

It didn’t come with out a cost though – over 30,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector, caused by a forced 20% decrease in production.

The drought panic also highlighted the massive issues around economic inequality – wealthy residents were able to install private bores and access groundwater for their own use.

Moving forward the City of Cape Town has released a draft strategy for water supply and management which identifies the limited opportunities for new surface water resources. Consistent rainfall is no longer a certainty, so water demand will have to be met with alternative sources. But finding alternative sources is difficult; groundwater aquifers are depleted and desalination is expensive.

The residents of Cape Town were able to successfully reduce their water usage in their time of crisis, but after Day Zero was pushed back their usage began to slowly creep up again. The perception of many residents was that the drought was over and they could return to ‘normal’. Here-in lies one of the biggest hurdles for Cape Town’s future – how do you go about managing demand for water? How do you fundamentally change the public’s perception of water availability?

And what are the lessons for the rest of the world?

The crisis ultimately revealed a deep disconnect in our relationship with water – do we really consider how sustainable our water usage is? And how well have we planned for drought? Do our management plans consider the possibility of rainfall on the lowest ends of the forecasts?

Cape Town was caught out because they weren’t prepared for a prolonged drought – how would other cities in more arid climates cope? Cape Town’s drinking water supply depended (and still depends) on surface water dams which supply over 95% of the city’s water. Sixty years ago Perth was in a very similar position, but the ‘Big Dry‘ forced Perth to diversify. Groundwater and desalination made up a majority of Perth scheme water in 2017/18.

In 2017/18 the Integrated Water Supply Scheme produced 312 billion litres of water, made up of desalinated water, groundwater, surface water dams and groundwater replenishment.

It’s difficult to properly manage without proper data – how are we supposed to implement strategic plans and priorities if we don’t have a clear picture of usage? In the information age why shouldn’t we be implementing city-wide digital water metering? Nice work Melbourne!

Public awareness and trust is crucial! A significant contributor to Cape Town’s Day Zero-dodge was the public banding together in reducing their water usage. But it was reactive not preemptive. How many ads from Water Corporation have you seen telling people to take two-minute showers? Or to turn your sprinklers off in winter? But you still hear your neighbour take half-hour showers and when you drive down the street in the rain you see sprinklers watering saturated lawns. You can scream public service messages at people until you’re blue in the face and get nowhere – so how do we shift public perception to embrace the importance of the issue?

With climate change placing more pressure on our water resources, it’s critical that we assess our drought resilience so we don’t get caught out like our South African counterparts. Engage in the discussions and be mindful of your water usage!