Friday, January 22

The lesson of the city that was about to run out of water | Future Planet

Before each shower, Bridgetti Lim Banda brings the empty bucket closer, places it under the shower head and turns the crank. Once it comes out, he leaves it next to the toilet, with the water in it ready to be reused. “My conscience would not let me flush. How could I do that when I know there are women walking miles every day to get water? ”She says. “The experience of two years ago has changed my life,” he adds.

In February 2018, the inhabitants of Cape Town were dying from a lack of supply. They had a restriction of 50 liters a day per person — a five-minute shower consumes about 45. One of the largest droughts in the region’s history had left Theewatersklof, the largest dam, at 12.5% ​​capacity and consuming 900 megaliters per day. The city was to run out of water on April 22. The region’s government called it Zero Day since January and alerted the population: either they would reduce their consumption in an extreme way or the taps would be closed that day. Little by little and with the efforts of many, the date on which Cape Town would remain dry was delayed: May 11, June 4 and finally July 9. The first week of the seventh month of 2018 arrived and the municipal government announced the miracle: they had managed to avoid the catastrophe.

In just half a year, the city cut its consumption in half to 450 megaliters a day. The farmers gave up their reserves to supply the population for a month and finally, with the South African winter, the long-awaited rains arrived. “Day Zero has been the best thing that has happened to Cape Town and to all of South Africa”, says Benoit Le Roy, director of the association. Water Shortage South Africa and co-director of the organization SA Water Chamber, which brings together some 250 private companies in the water sector. “Without the campaign, the taps would have been closed,” he adds.

For months, the municipality combined awareness-raising tactics with others of coercion and restraint. On the one hand, it forced houses to install water meters, threatening fines of up to 700 euros for those who did not have them, raised the price of water and prohibited washing cars and watering gardens. But on the other hand, he managed creatively: he covered the city with posters showing the average consumption of each person. He also promoted the initiative 2 minute water songs, a list of songs by South African artists who shortened their songs to two minutes and covered them with references to saving and launched the campaign If it’s yellow, let it be for a good use of the toilet water.

One of the posters announcing the savings measures.
One of the posters announcing the savings measures.

Now Theewatersklof has just had another summer, but unlike two years ago he is at 61.5% capacity and the total of all the dams that supply Cape Town have on average 66.9% water. The city continues with some restrictions; out of five possible levels they are at one, the lowest, but the situation is not similar at all. Such is the example given by Cape Town that will host the W12 international congress from May 18 to 20 this year which will bring together officials, activists, experts and entrepreneurs to seek sustainable water alternatives.

The Government warned of the catastrophe that would entail having to close the taps and achieved its objective, but some voices criticize the campaign. “It was a success in the sense that Day Zero was avoided, but a media disaster as it made South Africa a bad tourist destination and wrecked the economy of the Western Cape region,” he explains. Anthony Thurton, lecturer scientist and professor at the Center for Environmental Management at the University of Free State.

El international tourism decreased by 5% from July 2018 to July 2019 across the country, but the Cape Town municipality assured that it planned for it to grow in the first months of 2020. “It was terrible in the sense that they lied to people and scared them,” adds Lim Banda, who agrees with Thurton in the bad image given. For his part, Le Roy criticizes that the plan to establish supply collection points when the taps were closed was implausible: “Each person would have taken a day to collect their ration of water, the city would have collapsed in a week,” he says.

The City Council forced the houses to install water meters threatening fines of up to 700 euros for those who did not have them

Despite everything, experts say that this campaign would not have worked elsewhere due to the unique characteristics of Cape Town. “It is not an area with a lot of industry,” says Le Roy. “You don’t make what you really need,” Thurton adds. “In addition, the city has only an average 15% leakage, much less than 41% of all South Africa,” says Le Roy. Added to this is the fact that the region has its own dams, not like the province of Gauteng – which is home to the two main cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria – or KwaZulu-Natal – with Durban, the third largest city in the country. that depend on Lesotho.

Farmers, the most affected

The effects of the worst drought ever recorded in the Western Cape Province are still being borne by farmers. They were the ones who saved the city from catastrophe by opening the doors of its reserves, but now they are the ones who suffer the worst consequences the most. “They will still take five to seven years to recover,” says Le Roy. The primary sector is using 40% less water than five years ago, but climate change and new rainfall patterns are affecting its production. “In summer we used to have big storms,” ​​says Thurton. “Climate change is changing the agricultural economy since, for example, the production of crops such as grapes is expected today with the winter rains.”

In just one year, 30,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector in the Western Cape province and the effects of the drought in the west of the country continue to affect. The president of the Eastern Cape region blamed the lack of water from the 19,000 jobs lost in agriculture in the last four months of 2019.

Beyond the city limits, Day Zero did come. In the semi-desert area of ​​Karoo there are numerous small towns to which the taps were turned off. Among them is Graaf-Reinet, the fourth oldest city in the country, a town with more than 35,000 people without supply. Neighbors complain that they still have to pay for water despite not having it. “In those places the earth is so dry that it does not absorb the liquid,” says Lim Banda, who believes that the situation is critical. “Ranchers are having to kill their animals so they don’t suffer. They have to choose between feeding them or having food for oneself ”, he laments. The scarcity means that many have migrated from cities like Graaf-Reinet itself to large cities, which puts even more pressure on the latter’s water systems by increasing demand.

The Steenbras Dam, which supplies Cape Town, in early February.
The Steenbras Dam, which supplies Cape Town, in early February.

Private collaboration

In 2002 it was announced that 98% of the water available on the surface had been used. Despite the warnings, poor planning led to the 2018 borderline situation in Cape Town. This added to the gross corruption during the stage of former president Jacob Zuma, in whose second term a third of South Africa’s GDP disappeared, a total of 1.5 trillion rand, about 93,000 million euros. Meanwhile, in 2013 the second phase of the project began to export water from the mountains of Lesotho to South Africa. A construction that should be ready by 2020 and that would supply Gauteng, but that it won’t be until 2027. “The Government has asked to reduce water consumption by 4% per year until phase two is completed,” says Le Roy.

During the Zuma era, the Government closed in on receiving aid from the private sector. The legislation indicates that it is the State in charge of supplying all South Africans, but the companies ask to enter the process. The new president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been more open to private participation and has created the multisectoral initiative Public Private Growth Initiative to have the support of companies.

The government is working with the private sector on a 30-year plan with a clear goal: to get a third of the supply to come from places other than the dams. Experts estimate that around € 75 billion is needed to renovate technology, establish pressure controls, promote reuse and establish desalination plants. “At first the government promised to pay two thirds of the total bill, then they told us that they could only pay one and now they will fight to pay it,” explains Le Roy.

Lim Banda follows with their live videos to raise awareness about saving, some of which he claims have been seen by 40,000 people. “They scared us,” he says, looking back. “But it worked, there are still people queuing to get free water.” Now Lim Banda has opened other channels to report on other problems that South Africa suffers such as the energy crisis that causes almost daily blackouts. “The shortage has affected this situation, since water is needed to generate electricity,” she indicates, and assures that she is working to discover if the blackouts are due in part to the momentary lack of water, as the authorities repeatedly allege.

The government is working with the private sector on a 30-year plan with a clear goal: to get a third of the supply to come from places other than dams.

“You can’t change what you don’t know, information is power,” says Lim Banda, as he prepares to do laundry in his townhouse. “I’d rather have my clothes clean than take a five-minute shower or water the garden. Of course I would like to have a nice and careful one, who doesn’t? But if I have to choose between the grass or the laundry, there is no discussion ”.

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