Use + Remix

South Africa dodged a water disaster in 2018, providing lessons for cities facing similar crises. But copying everything from Cape Town would be a mistake.

South Africa’s Theewaterskloof Dam is in better shape today than in 2018. : F.J. Erasmus, Wikimedia Commons Public domain South Africa’s Theewaterskloof Dam is in better shape today than in 2018. : F.J. Erasmus, Wikimedia Commons Public domain

South Africa dodged a water disaster in 2018, providing lessons for cities facing similar crises. But copying everything from Cape Town would be a mistake.

In terms of navigating, not solving, a water crisis, South Africa’s 2018 Day Zero is often viewed as a gold standard. Although many missteps brought Cape Town to the brink of a disaster, its residents became water-wise, technical fixes were put in place and Day Zero never came to pass.

But as more cities find themselves experiencing water crises, any approach that tries to simply copy Cape Town will find themselves adrift.

The deliberate use of ‘navigating’ instead of ‘solving’ in talking about water crises is a nuanced yet significant distinction. It underscores how complex and interconnected water crises are with other global challenges, including food security, energy transition, climate change, and political will.

Despite warnings and calls to action over decades — notably in 1981, 2006, 2018 and 2024 — tangible progress remains elusive. The world’s water issues are not just a future threat, but a challenge of the present that demands different ways of thinking and acting.

Different ways of thinking

Since 1800, the global population has gone from one billion to over 8 billion. Yet the amount of freshwater available has not changed since the time of dinosaurs.

A closer look at a growing population and a shift towards more water-intensive consumption patterns can explain why global freshwater use has increased six-fold since 1900. Increased demand for the fixed amount of freshwater is creating more water-related conflicts.

But most water problems are local, not global. One way to reframe the water crisis is to think about water as a variable and flexible resource, meaning  its availability and use is highly variable, geographically, and seasonally.

For example, Bangladesh — a flood prone country — receives nearly 90 percent of its annual precipitation in 100 hours over 100 days.  The other 265 days it suffers from drought-like conditions.

In contrast, the US city of Boston has a fairly uniform precipitation regime, with about 1200mm of rainfall spread almost equally over 12 months. The management of water crises for these two places has to account for local conditions and seasonal variability in developing and implementing solutions.

Brazil has more freshwater than any country in the world, yet São Paulo — the richest, largest city in South America — faced a water crisis in 2015. But São Paulo’s crisis is different from Cape Town’s. And the crisis in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, which saw its water surface shrink by 80 percent between 1973 and 2023 due to a ten-fold rise in concrete structures, is different again from São Paulo and Cape Town.

Talking about these water problems as part of a global water crisis provides a cartoonish version of reality. There is no actionable solution template for these so-called global water crises, each problem and related response is nuanced by the local context.

Learning by doing

Between 2014 and 2018, Cape Town endured a 1-in-400-year drought. Between 1995 and 2018, the city’s population grew 79 percent, from about 2.4 million to 4.3 million Over the same period, dam storage increased by only 15 percent.

The drought in Cape Town was severe, but not the worst on record. More importantly, very little of Cape Town’s water is sourced from the city itself. Six major dams make up 99.6 percent of the volume of water in the Western Cape Water Supply System.

In 2007, the national water body issued a warning about Cape Town’s water supply, saying the city would need new water sources by 2015.

One of the biggest debates is whether local and national governments handled the crisis well. A closer look suggests politics, not drought, is at the heart of the problem.

The Western Cape is the only province in the country run by the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress runs the rest.

This makes the relationship between the national government and the Western Cape water authority more complicated. Two tiers of governance — the Western Cape province and the City of Cape Town — apparently did what was required to prepare for drought.

Provinces, on the other hand, don’t have the power to make water allocations to agriculture. This is done by the national government. In 2015, the city of Cape Town was allocated 60 percent of the water from the Western Cape’s water supply system by the national government, despite the ongoing drought and looming water crisis. Many argue that the national government’s response to addressing the water crisis seems to have failed.

Blame shifting, fault finding, and panic are not unique to South Africa. It is the usual reaction to water crises all over the world, albeit with contextual nuances.

What was instructive about Cape Town’s response to Day Zero was its concerted effort to effectively engage water users through transparent public communications and innovative engineering solutions. This has resulted in an over 50 percent reduction in water consumption between 2015 and 2020.

Vagaries of climate uncertainty and seasonal variability of precipitation also helped. In September 2018, with more rain and dam levels close to 70 percent, the city began easing water restrictions.

Rainfall in subsequent years broke the drought and storage levels are at 69.5 percent, as of March 15 2024. However, the risk of future shortages remains as demand for water continues to rise.

Cape Town isn’t the first or only major city to face the risk of running dry.

In 2015, Sao Paulo faced a similar drought-driven crisis. Drastic water restrictions and short-term technical fixes averted a crisis in Brazil’s largest city.

These aren’t isolated incidents and drought is not the only water crisis.

Five 1,000-year floods happened in just five weeks across the United States in 2022. Pakistan experienced one of the worst floods in 2022, its second 1,000-year flood in just over a decade, affecting over a third of the country with an estimated damage loss that could exceed USD$10 billion.

As water crises — be it drought induced or flood related — pop up all over the globe, pragmatic steps to address these water problems at the local level will be more effective than simply  ‘talking the talk’ about a global crisis. South Africa is not Brazil. The US is not Pakistan. Droughts and floods are not similar crises.

There is a value in developing awareness at the global level, but ‘walking the talk’ in a principled and pragmatic way is vital to resolving these water crises that are technically efficient, societally relevant, and politically feasible.

Creating resilient water systems will help the world avoid a Day Zero and taking preventative action ensures that a natural hazard like a flood does not become a flooding crisis.

Shafiqul Islam is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a professor of water diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Dr. Islam is the Director of the Water Diplomacy Program and Data Driven Decision Making @ Tufts (D3M@Tufts). He is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and Editor of Water Resources Research and the recipient of the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Water Prize for Creativity. More information is available here and here.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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