Managing Water Scarcity: Lessons from Cape Town

March 27, 2018


Amidst an ongoing drought in the Western Cape province of South Africa, the City of Cape Town is facing a catastrophic water crisis. Local authorities had announced plans to shut off all taps on 12 April, i.e. Day Zero, but after intense efforts to raise awareness and reduce water consumption, Day Zero has been pushed back to 2019. It is important to note that Cape Town has some of the highest rates of inequality in the world, with a wide gap between the rich and poor as well as their respective patterns of consumption. In fact, people living in informal settlements consume less than 5% of municipal water.

Many lessons can be drawn from the crisis in Cape Town, for cities and countries around the world. These include several cities in Latin American countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, all of which are experiencing drought and water shortage. Thus, as cities become more vulnerable to natural hazards and municipal authorities struggle to cater to their growing populations, policymakers, climate change experts, disaster management authorities and other relevant stakeholders will need to come together to find sustainable solutions to address water insecurity.

In response, the LEAD Member Programs (Anglophone West Africa, Francophone Africa, India, Mexico, Pakistan and Southern and Eastern Africa) hosted an international webinar on Managing Water Scarcity: Lessons from Cape Town as part of the ongoing LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. LEADING Perspectives aims to bring together a diverse set of experts to accelerate the thought process on pressing water and environmental issues. This session will take on the challenge of generating an informed, pluralistic and multi-sectoral analysis to propose options for consideration by all concerned stakeholders.

South Africa's Water Management System

South Africa's water laws are quite progressive and an example for many countries. After the 1994 elections, the water management system went from one being based on rights, to one where water was considered a shared property of all citizens and the government was a custodian. Essentially, water policy was based on a system of integrated water resource management (IWRM), with the national government being responsible for bulk water supply and local government for water services. Irrigation Boards (now called Water User Associations) would handle irrigation to farmers. However, since the water laws were enacted, there have been several failures of governance in relation to water management. Moreover, with South Africa being one driest countries in the world with variable rainfall and only 9% of rainfall becoming runoff, only about 26% of water in rivers can be stored in dams and made available for use. Given these statistics, South Africa's water consumption patterns can be deemed quite wasteful (225 litres per person per day compared to around 173 litres worldwide).

Key Factors Contributing to the Cape Town Crisis

Cape Town is in the midst of a dry period with a drought in the Western Cape province. Spatially, annual rainfall has been highly variable in recent decades with a loss of around 17 millimetres per decade. Available data shows that that rainfall levels are likely to continue decreasing and as a result, there will be reduced streamflow and less water going into dams.

Another factor contributing to the water crisis is poor planning around the assurance of water supply. Historically, Cape Town has been quite successful in managing the city's water demand, especially since the early 2000s. However, environmental factors like climate change and alien plant invasions could make the effects of the ongoing drought and low rainfall considerably worse. Invasive alien plants (mostly pine trees invading native shrub lands and requiring more water) are, for example, reducing runoff in catchment areas. These factors are not currently a part of drought projections, which is a problem.

The third component of the water crisis is the growing population and increased consumption. In the last two decades, Cape Town has experienced intense immigration from other provinces in the country, with the current population exceeding 4 million. Thus, despite the construction of new dams, per capita water availability is declining.

How Has Cape Town Responded?

Citizens and industries in Cape Town have responded to the crisis quite well. Severe water rationing has helped to restrict water usage. Between February 2015 and March 2018, per capita water usage fell from 1200 million litres daily to 511 million litres daily, and there are around 2500 water restriction metres being installed per month. However, there is a strong need for ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. Better management of catchment areas and land use could maximise the benefits derived through the water supply system. In addition, there needs to be long-term investments in water recycling and reuse, and Catchment Management Agencies need to have more executive authority in order to be effective.

Cape Town also needs to protect its water sources, e.g. the Cape Flats, and address income inequality. Typically, at the household level, there are higher consumption patterns in higher-income areas. Wealthier citizens also have more options to use alternative water sources. Since they do not require licenses to drill bore holes, those who are well off can simply apply to the city council and hire private companies. They are also able to use greywater systems and rainwater tanks. Meanwhile, people in informal settlements only use about 4% of municipal water supply.

The Latin American Context and Challenges: Climate Change, the SDGs, and Priority Areas for Achieving Water Security

Since the 1990s and particularly the 2000s, there has been an increasing focus in Latin America on non-structural measures, legal reforms and environmental protection. There is also increasing cooperation and information exchange between watershed management agencies. However, there are still several challenges that need to be overcome to achieve water security. Some of these challenges are the macroeconomic instability in the region and low public investments in the water sector.

Also, like South Africa, Latin American countries have experienced massive population growth, with the UN estimating a population of 723 million by 2030. The urban population has almost doubled, resulting in growing inequality - around 1 in 4 people live in slums and have limited access to water and sanitation services. Moreover, while some countries have very high average water availability, others have a very low average water availability. This makes water planning and management quite difficult. In addition, although water sanitation and connection rates are high, services are fairly low.

It is also important to keep in mind that many metropolitan centres throughout Latin America are highly vulnerable to climate change. Many cities are also reliant on groundwater for their water supply, giving a false sense of security since the aquifers are being depleted, e.g. in Mexico City, while frequent hurricanes and melting of glaciers are also impacting urban centres.

The 2030 Agenda offers some hope for attaining water security, since Sustainable Development Goals 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 14 (Life Below Water) clearly relate to water supply and water resources management. Achieving water security would therefore automatically lead to the achievement of the targets related to these goals, especially Goal 6. Priority areas for achieving water security include: ensuring equal and adequate access to water supply and sanitation, ensuring sustainable management of water and the reduction of water-related conflicts, conserving water bodies to protect the environment and public health, and risk reduction in relation floods and hurricanes.

The Way Forward: Lessons from Cape Town for Latin America and the World

There are several strategies that can be deployed to overcome some of the water security challenges facing Latin America - these include circular economic models and green infrastructure in WASH, as well as partnerships with the private sector to encourage financial innovation.

Drawing specifically from the case of Cape Town, it is also important to remember that non-structural measures are as important as structural measures like increasing dam capacity. Similarly, it is crucial for policymakers to properly consider evidence-based and technical risks and probabilities, while at the same time there needs to be more emphasis on enforcement of legal reforms rather than just passing policies without proper implementation.

There were up to 50 people from Pakistan, South Africa and South America participating in the webinar.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Update are intended to capture the discussion and debate generated by the speaker. They do not represent the opinions of LEAD Pakistan or any other organisation.