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From Cape Town to Bengaluru and Nairobi to Mexico City, hundreds of cities across the world are on the verge of going completely dry
The water conservation maxim, “If it’s brown flush it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow,” adorns the walls of hotel rooms in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s richest cities. Its implication becomes clear as one enters Springs Way, the road leading to the city’s most popular natural springs. Here, “ubers” or flatbed trolleys that are used to haul water cans to waiting cars can be seen everywhere. Under the watchful eyes of the local law enforcement authority stationed on the streets, people jostle for space around a three-inch PVC pipe at a spring water collection point in their mad rush to fill bottles, buckets and jerrycans. The precious water flowing out of the numerous pipe holes has become the city’s lifeline as a dry and waterless future stares at the city’s residents. There are already strict restrictions in place to budget water. The municipality has introduced skyrocketing tariffs and penalties if water usage exceeds 6,000 litres per household per month (50 litres per person per day). Last year in September, the limit stood at 87 litres per person per day.
Once an idyllic street located in the upper middle-class suburb of Newlands, Springs Way has turned into a crowded place ever since Cape Town realised it was running dry. “We have been coming here almost every day to supplement the 50 litres of water per person we get from the municipal pipes,” says Louise, a Cape Town resident. Though there is no limit as to how much water one can collect from the spring, a daily limit of 25 litres per person is likely to be imposed when Day Zero hits on July 15, 2018, and the municipal taps run dry. (Update: After this story was published, the Cape Town officials deferred the Day Zero to 2019, despite the fact that there has not been any improvement in water level in the reservoirs). When that sets in, residents will have to queue up to get water ration from collection points under armed guards. Twenty-five litres is a pitiable amount. A toilet flush generally uses about 9 litres of water.
However, the day of ration does not seem far, with most Capetonians still not adhering to the new limit. Day Zero will hit when the levels in all the six dams drop to 13 per cent. And while the restriction of 25 litres is aimed at conserving water, it has also made people anxious. It is not clear how the limit can be enforced and order maintained at the same time. There are palpable signs of anxiety everywhere. Posters, hoardings and stickers adorn airport pillars and electric billboards, urging residents to conserve water.
Factoring in meteorology
So how did this happen to a city that bagged the C40 Cities Awards in 2015 for its Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Programme? Climate change is one of the most potent factors. Cape Town relies on rainwater to fill up its six reservoirs, and below average rainfall from 2015-17 has contributed to the drying up of the reservoirs.
In fact, the Western Cape region where Cape Town is situated has been undergoing a massive drying up process since 2015. Fuelled by El Niño between 2014 and 2017, the southern as well as the eastern African regions, including parts of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, Madagascar, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, have witnessed some of the driest conditions. Above normal rainfall in 2017 finally brought some respite to these countries, but the southernmost tip of Africa was not so fortunate. In fact, Cape Town may face drought this year too.
Western Cape and its neighbouring provinces receive rainfall mostly during April-September due to cold fronts, that occur when a large mass of cold air meets a mass of warm air to regulate rainfall activity over the southernmost tip of Africa. When they meet, the warmer air is pushed upwards and results in the formation of cumulonimbus clouds that bring rains and thunderstorms. But predicting cold fronts is difficult. According to government–run South African Weather Service (SAWS), the high variability of eastward winds coming in from the Antarctic Ocean, which lead to the formation of cold fronts, makes rainfall forecast in the region a difficult proposition.
According to Piotr Wolski, a climate researcher at the University of Cape Town who has studied the historical rainfall data, the 2017 drought is a rare event with the probability of its occurrence just once in 36 years. “The sheer improbability of the drought is remarkable even though the three-year period is undoubtedly the driest on record. My findings are that this kind of drought occurs once in 311 years, with a 90 per cent chance that it falls between or comes once in 105 and 1,280 years,” he notes in an analysis on the university webpage.
As per SAWS, Cape Town receives 820 millimetres (mm) of rain annually, of which 77 per cent is received during the winter and the rest during the summer. According to the average rainfall, the region is semi-arid, but even by these standards, the past three years have been particularly harsh, including two of the driest years since records started being maintained in 1921. While the region received 549 mm of rain in 2015, the number stood at 634 mm in 2016. In 2017, it was 499 mm. Also, the latest drought does not mean rainfall has been consistently failing. In fact, one of the characteristic features of the rainfall here is its high variability from year to year. A rainfall of 1,211 mm in 2013 in Cape Town was the sixth highest-ever recorded while 853 mm received in 2014 was also above average.
Rainfall projections for this century show a declining trend across southern Africa, with stronger and frequent droughts expected in the coming decades, exacerbated by climate change. According to Wolski, the average rainfall trends of the past 84 years in Western Cape show precipitation has been declining at the rate of over 17 mm per decade. However, precipitation alone cannot be blamed for the severity of the situation. One also has to take into account the city’s water supply system. In 2014, all the six reservoirs that supply water to Cape Town were full. It took just three rainfall-deficient seasons to push the city to its worst crisis ever.
Agriculture hit; crop production dips
When Down To Earth (DTE) visited Theewaterskloof—the largest reservoir in Western Cape and the main source of water for Cape Town—in the beginning of March, it was just over 10 per cent full. The site resembled a 500-sq-km apocalyptic dust bowl, with stumps of trees on what used to be the bed of the reservoir and a narrow stream flowing as the only reminder one of a fast desertifying future. Four years ago around the same time of the year, the massive earthen reservoir, built on Sonderend river, was over 80 per cent full.
The effect of the ongoing drought on agriculture, which mostly comprises orchard farming, is palpable. There is less fruit picking in the apple, pear and other orchards in Western Cape, a lot of which depends on water from the reservoir. Its drying up has led to around 20 per cent less produce. After rains failed last year, several farmers cut down on sowing new plant seeds and the impact is becoming visible as the region begins its harvest season. In February, the latest drought in Western, Northern and Eastern Cape was declared a national emergency by the South Africa government. Recently, the provincial minister for economic opportunities, Alan Winde, citing a report by the agricultural department and the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), said the drought is likely to cost the sector a staggering US $500 million.
Agriculture together with agri-processing contributes over 10 per cent of the Western Cape economy and forms over half its exports. It also employs over 300,000 workers or 15 per cent of the total regional workforce, three-fourths of whom are seasonal migrant farm workers whose three months of work typically provides for the entire year. They work for farmers, most of whom are big and own a lot of land. With the total water level in dams across Western Cape teetering just above 20 per cent compared to 32 per cent last year, farmers in some areas have to deal with water cuts as high as 86 per cent for irrigation. Farmers who own borewells can use them only twice a week for limited hours.
Albert Lingenfelder’s farm is adjacent to the dam. He and his two brothers are third generation farmers who depended on the dam to irrigate their 200-hectare apple and pear orchard. “In my 23 years of experience, I have never seen a situation like this. We had to cut down our water use to the bare minimum. I have prioritised the plants that are ready for harvest and I am not irrigating the younger ones. To make matters worse, the dry and dusty conditions have massively increased the number of microscopic red spiders that feed on leaves and have a damaging effect on fruits,” says Lingenfelder.
The loss in production is also leading to layoffs in the agro-allied sector. Statistics of South Africa’s year-on-year analysis of people employed in the sector from 2015-16 to 2017-18 shows a decline of over 32,000 jobs. Frequent protests by farm workers are also being reported from provinces near Cape Town. The shortfall in production this season has led to a 20 per cent reduction in the labour requirement that has affected workers mostly from the Eastern Cape. The Lingenfelders depend on seasonal farmers, mainly from the Eastern Cape, to pick fruits. In the Western Cape, BFAP policy brief notes that there has been a 20 per cent shortfall in production of its famous wine grapes, but employment has not been hit in a directly proportional manner. “There, however, has been a drastic reduction in the amount of water used to wash and prepare the grapes,” says Angelique Yunia, who supervises a team of 64 farm workers (40 of whom are seasonal) in a vineyard in the Stellenbosch region near Cape Town.
Karel Swart, spokesperson for the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), says, “There is effectively nothing that has been grown on smaller farms this season because of the water restrictions. Farmers have already sold a lot of their livestock in desperation as they are trying get through the summer. The situation has had an impact on job security. The government has not attempted to address these worries, and any help that the government offers goes to big farmers. If this continues, it could result in bigger frustration and uprising-like situation even in the Western Cape.”
In 2016, as many as 2.33 million households or 13.8 per cent were agricultural, according to the Community Survey of Agricultural Households conducted by Statistics South Africa. The number dropped from 2.88 million just five years due to droughts, says the survey. While much of the economic value of agriculture in South Africa comes from large-scale commercial farming, the survey found that over 80 per cent of the agricultural households in the country practice backyard or subsistence farming and depend on their farms for food. There are fears that the latest drought will add to this already stressed community which is increasingly abandoning the countryside and migrating to cities.
A survey conducted in 2017 by BFAP warns that if it does not rain adequately, about six per cent farmers are expected to quit the trade which could further cascade into an employment and food security crisis. Lingenfelder, who is now planning to build a farm pond at a cost of $600,000 to avoid dependence on city water, admits the expense is “like a gamble”. “It will amount to nothing if it doesn’t rain,” he says. Across the region, hope is now pinned on the coming winters.
Not just farmers, the ongoing crisis has impacted everybody in the deeply unequal city, that has mansions, resorts and shantytowns alike. But how the people are coping with the water crisis depends on how much money they have. For the rich, the current crisis means spending more to dig fresh, deeper borewells and also embracing water-saving technologies. Stephanie Peters of Hout Bay, one of the most affluent areas, spent over $2,200 last year to reduce her water footprint. She has retrofitted her house with water-efficient technologies like rainwater harvesting, grey water system for gardening and air-diffusing taps which reduce water use by 80 per cent by mixing more air with the water. She takes pride in the backwash collection system installed for her private swimming pool that she claims saves 2,000 litres of water a month.
For the poor, water restrictions and calls to reduce consumption by city authorities do not amount to much. Far from swimming pools, they rely on communal taps for their requirements. The desperation can be clearly seen in the Imizamo Yethu (which means Our Struggle) informal settlement, barely a few kilometres from Peter’s house, that was originally designed for 2,000 people but today houses close to 50,000. While the better-off residents of the settlement have illegally drawn private connections from communal taps, others struggle to get water. They gripe that even during the current crisis, a lot of water is being wasted in their localities due to leaking pipes and community toilets. “Almost every tap here has a leak. If you want to see real waste, you should see the toilets. We regularly have situations where the toilet is leaking for days and nobody comes to fix it. It is a sad situation. The people don’t have water at their homes yet they see it being wasted every day,” says Justice Onkwana, who has been living in the settlement for over a decade now. In his part of the settlement, there are nine toilets that cater to 3,500 people.
There are fears among the poorer sections of Cape Town society that they will be affected disproportionately by water reduction measures taken by the city since they do not pay for water. While city authorities swear that restrictions will be the same for all, residents of Imizamo Yethu are hard-pressed to believe this. Locals say that while the city routinely cuts off supply to the area, the drop in water pressure has effectively cut off water for about half the settlement. Imizamo Yethu sprawls along one side of the famous Table Mountain and the reduction of pressure has meant that only the houses of the settlement that are in the upper reaches, and closer to the small reservoir the city stores water in, get water while the pressure is not enough to carry the water to the lower reaches. When DTE visited the settlement in early March, residents in the lower parts claimed that the unintended consequence of the city dropping water supply pressure had left communal taps and toilets dry for over three days.
The crisis is also fuelling distrust between the rich and the poor. There is a growing perception among the rich that they are being forced to pay more for water because people in informal settlements waste it as they get it for free through community taps. However, government data suggests that informal settlements, that house more than 15 per cent of the city’s population, consume just four per cent of the city’s water.
The poor, meanwhile, claim people with piped water connections from nearby areas have started using community taps. Residents of Sihyala (roughly translates to We Stay) informal settlement, which has just three community taps for 164 families, say people from surrounding neighbourhoods are now increasingly using their taps. “So, our water availability, which was already low, has gone down further,” says resident Ntombentsha Sister. Wyt Myoyo, another resident, says there have been altercations in the past few weeks and warns these may escalate if people from “the brick houses” try to use their water.
As half the city pays for its water and the other half relies on free government supply, there’s no prize for guessing which group of Capetonians will be the first to suffer from any quantum cuts that the city decides to make in the run up to Day Zero.
South Africa Water Research Commission’s chief executive officer, Dhesigan Naidoo, says one of the biggest reasons for the water crisis is the failure of planning and diversification. Cape Town relies almost entirely on water stored in dams for drinking purposes. The six dams with a total capacity of 898 million litres form over 99 per cent of the Western Cape Water Supply System—an interlinking of dams and canals—with some amount of water coming from springs originating in the Table Mountain. At this time four years ago, the dam levels stood at over 80 per cent cumulatively.
The current levels are just 23 per cent. Apart from dependence on dams, high consumption pattern is also to be blamed. The city has recently been using about 500 million litres of water everyday, amounting to about 125 litres per person or 2.5 times the limit of 50 litres that the city administration has called for to avert disaster. Before the crisis, the number was as high as 900 million litres per day. Taking into account neighbouring municipalities and agricultural activity, for which around 30 per cent of the dam storage is usually reserved, the total consumption in the Western Cape region is beyond 1.5 billion litres daily.
In the past 20 years, Cape Town’s population has expanded. In 1980, the city was home to 1.6 million residents. By 2011, it jumped by 230 per cent to touch 3.7 million. According to latest estimates, some 4.3 million people live here. In this period, the only addition to the city’s water supply system has been a 130-megalitre dam on the Berg river that started storing water in 2007. With the increase in population, the water requirement has increased. This is something that was not planned for despite the fact that the last water augmentation report was prepared between 2002 and 2005, well into the growth phase of the city, Naidoo says. “The augmentation report suggested that Cape Town would be water secure until 2022, but planners failed to take into account climatic and demographic changes. Resting on this estimate, the city has been slow to supplement its resources,” he says.
Slow to act
A reading of the situation in the run-up to the crisis reflects the truth of Naidoo’s statement. While the country was warned of water shortages right through 2015 and 2016 and several other cities in Africa put in measures to manage their water resources, Cape Town was confident of good rains in 2017. Water conservation efforts were intensified only in September 2017 when it was clear that the rains had once again given the region a miss. “Until last year, the city was unable to pursue diversification of water sources as there was significant risk. If we received good winter rainfall, then the newly constructed infrastructure would become redundant. The city started the procurement process for augmentation or diversification as soon as there was a clear idea of what would be required to sustain itself through the winter of 2018,” says Alderman Ian Neilson, executive deputy mayor of Cape Town.
It took another four months and the declaration of a looming Day Zero to bring the critical situation into focus. The local administration too needed this threat to swing into action. Along with regulatory mechanisms and awareness campaigns to conserve water, the city finally proceeded to initiate projects to augment water supply. Cape Town now has to reduce its overdependence on reservoirs, water planners say. According to plans, only about 64 per cent of the city’s water resources will come from dams in the future. For the rest of the supply, the city will have to turn to desalination of sea water, extraction of groundwater and promotion of recycled water.
As part of a short-term plan, the city is working towards having a 16 MLD desalination plant in the next two months. Right now, four plants are being planned out of which the setting up of three is running behind schedule. The only one on schedule is a small one and will give only 2 MLD of water per day by March. When DTE visited one of plants in Standfontein, a worker informed that the plant is in the initial stages of being set up. “It is still uncertain as to when it will be up and running,” he said. “All the plants are being planned in the form of rented modular ones that will operate over the next two years until 2020. Significant pre-planning is also underway to allow for fast-tracked implementation of large-scale augmentation schemes in the long-term,” adds Nielson. As far as medium-term plans go, Cape Town is working to ramp up alternative water supply over 200 MLD before the winter of 2019, the bulk of which will come from aquifer extraction and desalination. Among all the plans for a water-secure future, the least controversial is recycling of water. According to local media organisation, GroundUp, private players in the city already recycle and sell about 50-100 MLD water to select customers. By June, Cape Town aims to introduce 20 MLD recycled water in the municipal water supply. As per long-term plans, the city intends to get over 150 MLD through recycling by 2021.
Will the plans Work?
Cape Town’s new augmentation plans state that up to 17 per cent of the city’s water requirement will be met by desalination by the early 2020s. But critics opine desalination cannot be the ultimate solution as the brine produced as a by-product will affect local ecology once dumped back into the sea. “This can increase salinity levels in the vicinity of the discharge. The city has applied for Coastal Water Discharge Permits (CWDP) for all its desalination plants. This requires that we assess the expected brine dispersion. Further, we will now implement a marine monitoring protocol as per the CWDP specifications,” Neilson says.
The city hopes to tap aquifers for 10 per cent of water supply. There are three prominent ones—the Cape Flats Aquifer (CFAU), the Table Mountain Group Aquifer (TMG) and Atlantis. The latter already provides around 5 MLD to the city and plans are underway to extract up to 25 MLD by the end of the year. Authorities are also testing the viability of tapping into other aquifers. If all goes well, the city has the licence to extract up to 150 MLD within a few years out of which 80 MLD is expected to come from the TMG, 40 MLD from CFAU and the rest from Atlantis, the smallest of the three. But getting water from aquifers also has concerns such as possibilities of contamination, salt water intrusion and irreversible ecological damage.
The city government has consulted geo-hydrology specialists in groundwater extraction targets who have carried out surveys that will help the city build a detailed model of aquifers that can be monitored after extraction. Aquifers are considered both for extraction and as natural underground water storage sites. As part of the city’s efforts to build resilience towards a water-secure future, officials are working on finding a sustainable balance between storage in dams and what exists underground. A major concern when it comes to groundwater is its unregulated extraction by private houses and businesses. “In the harbour area, it is more likely to raise environmental concerns. Large-scale borehole drilling has been quite carefully planned. However, there are chances of proliferation of smaller borewells, so there are likely to be some ecological consequences, especially if the next wet season is also a below normal one,” says Graham Jewitt, director of the Centre for Water Resources Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
Since Cape Town shocked its residents by announcing Day Zero, donation of the precious resource has helped the city move on amidst gloom. In a goodwill gesture, farmers owning large tracts of land donated about 10 million litres of water from their private reservoirs. While Day Zero has been pushed back till July, it does not mean the city is out of danger. “We need to pray for rains. It is going to take time to put in the necessary infrastructure to cope with a continuation of the drought,” Armitage says.
(This story was first published in the 16-31st March issue of Down to Earth under the headline 'Last few drops').