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Cape Town Crisis: How does a global city run out of water?

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, January 25, 2018, 4:24 PM - The clock is ticking down for Cape Town's water supply, with an April 'Day Zero' now looming closer, but how does a major global city run out of water?

Drought. Climate change. Politics. The city of Cape Town, South Africa, has become a glimpse into our future - a future where water scarcity becomes a daily fact of life for everyone, as our planet continues to warm.

Many people, around the world, deal with water scarcity as a regular fact of daily life. According to a World Health Organization and UNICEF report from 2017, 253 million people around the world must travel at least 30 minutes to collect clean water for their daily use. Close to 600 million more people, on top of that, do not have access to basic drinking water services, and a total of 2.1 billion people around the world lack access to safe, readily available clean water at home.

While many of those dealing with water scarcity live in rural areas, how does a major global city, with access to a number of fresh water reservoirs, end up running out of clean drinking water?

Cape Town, the capital of Western Cape province, is a port city along South Africa's southwest coast. Credit: Google/Scott Sutherland

Worst drought on record

Credit: University of Cape Town

The United Nations, in their 2012 World Water Development Report 4, identified most of South Africa as being in a region that is "approaching physical water scarcity". This means that, currently, more than 60 per cent of water from rivers is drawn out for human purposes, and in the future, the development of water resources is expected to approach or exceed the sustainable limit (actual physical water scarcity). 

So, much of the nation - including Western Cape province and the city of Cape Town - is already putting stress on its available water resources. Communities get through drier times by imposing water restrictions, which have gotten them through previous dry spells.

Making matters worse now, however, is the fact that, for the past three years, the province has been experiencing its worst drought on record. A study conducted by Piotr Wolski, from the University of Cape Town, showed that 2017 was the driest year in that region since record-keeping began in 1933, and that 2015-2017 was the driest three-year period in that same time period.

As a result, the water levels in six major reservoirs supplying the Western Cape have steadily dwindled. On January 22, 2014, the total water storage for these reservoirs was over 90 per cent of capacity, due to exceptionally good rains that had fallen over the area. By that same day in 2015, it had dropped to 78 per cent of capacity. In 2016, it was down to just over 49 per cent. By 2017, total storage was at around 41 per cent.

As of January 22, 2018, those six dams were only at 27.2 per cent of capacity, and according to local authorities, the last 10 per cent of these reservoirs is very difficult to extract, so the readily usable amount of water is now, effectively, down to just over 17 per cent!

Credit: City of Cape Town

Climate change

"Droughts happen," Wolski wrote in his study, which he posted to the university's website in August 2017. It's not necessarily a sign of climate change when a drought occurs, and quite frankly, it's impossible to plot a climate trend with only three years worth of data.

What Wolski did find, through an analysis of rainfall rates in the region, is that the Western Cape likely sees a drought like this only once in 311 years. So, this is certainly a rare event.

Where anthropogenic climate change may be factoring in, though, is in the longer-term trend in rainfall rates that Wolski calculated from local rainfall data. Over the past 84 years, there is a trend of decreasing rainfall over Western Cape province, by around 17 millimetres per decade.

Credit: Piotr Wolski, University of Cape Town

As Wolski wrote in his blog post from January 22, 2018, which provided an update from his 2017 study:

This figure shows a trend in rainfall in the WCWSS region over the last 84 years. That trend is towards lower rainfall and it has a relatively strong magnitude - 17mm/10 years. It is barely statistically significant, though. The important thing is that this trend may be an expression of anthropogenic climate change, and may be affecting the return interval of droughts. Simply, if that trend was not there, a drought of magnitude experienced in 2017 would be much less likely. Or, to put it in another way, if that trend was not there, then the 2017 drought would likely be much less severe.

So, while nothing absolute can be be said from this trend, it's possible that it could be a signal of the impact of human activities on the world.

Political mismanagement

So, we have a rare drought, the likes of which has not been seen since the early 1930s, at the very least, and possibly going back 300 years or more. There is also a noticable trend in the rainfall that shows the area is receiving less rain, decade by decade. 

These facts certainly set up the backdrop for the current crisis, however there were human factors - specifically political ones - that apparently made the situation even worse, and pushed the region towards this looming Day Zero.

According to The Conversation, the Democratic Alliance, which is the Western Cape provincial government, and the African National Congress, the party that runs South Africa on a national level, have been going toe-to-toe over this crisis for some time now.

Provinces 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% of the water from the Western Cape’s water supply system. Almost all of the rest went to agriculture, particularly long-term crops like fruit and wine as well as livestock.
The drought began to take its toll on provincial dam levels. Yet the national Department of Water and Sanitation took no action to curtail agricultural water use in 2015/2016.
There is evidence that the department’s failure went even further: that it allocated too much water to agriculture in the Western Cape. This pushed demand for water beyond the capacity of the supply system and consumed Cape Town’s safety buffer of 28 thousand megaliters.
Cape Town shows some of the best water saving levels in the world. But its supply dams are being hit by national government’s bungled water allocations to agriculture.

When the drought began, Cape Town and the Western Cape were probably in the best possible position, with respect to water management. Reservoirs were near capacity, and they'd just spent years on improvements to their management system, which earned them a C40 Cities Award in 2015.

Once the drought was taking its toll, the the province and city reacted by attempting to expand their water resources, and have the region declared a disaster area. This would both to free up federal funding for relief, and to allow the province to impose water restrictions on its municipalities, something it is unable to legally do, if there is no declaration of disaster in place.

Theewaterskloof Dam, outside Cape Town, South Africa, during the drought. Credit: Getty Images

The national government rejected the initial requests, apparently dismissing the seriousness of the situation. Even when they did begin to declare specific municipalities as disaster areas, they left Cape Town off of that list. One of the reasons for the slow response was idenified in an October 2017 report by Johannesburg's Daily Maverick - the Department of Water and Sanitation didn't want to pay out any more money because they had run out of funds, and the national treasury had refused to bail the department out.

So, as The Conversation wrote:

The civil society group, South African Water Caucus, reveals that national government’s reluctance to release drought relief funding stemmed from spiralling debt, mismanagement and corruption in the national Department of Water and Sanitation.
This claim is supported by the Auditor General, which attributes “irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure” to the department exceeding its 2016-2017 budget by R110.8 million.
The department has no funding allocated to drought relief in the Western Cape next year. Again, provincial government will have to foot the bill.
Had systems in national government been running smoothly, Cape Town’s water crisis could have been mitigated. Appropriate water allocations would have made more water available to Cape Town. And with timely responses to disaster declarations, water augmentation infrastructure could have been up and running already.

As of now, without any significant improvements or assistance - either from nature or from the government - Cape Town's Day Zero, when the city will run out of water, is April 12, 2018.

According to the University of Cape Town, there are still ways to push back this date (possibly indefinitely). Implimentation of even tougher water restrictions, which will include a seven-fold increase in the cost of water, will reduce the demand on reservoirs. Under this plan, residents will only be allowed 50 litres of water per person per day, for all of their daily needs. For comparison, an eight minute shower in the average Canadian household uses up over 65 litres of water. Also, at the end of January, water for agricultural use will be shut off, nearly doubling the amount that can then be used by the city, and there are new projects in the process of being implemented, to desalinate sea water (an expensive and energy intensive process), to extract water from local groundwater aquifers, and to treat and recycle sewage water.

The current weather forecast gives a possibilty of rain for the first weekend of February, although given that this is more than seven days from now, that forecast could change at any time. Any amount of rainfall would help with the situation, even if it only pushes back Day Zero slightly, as every extra day helps avert a disaster.

Sources: Piotr Wolski, University of Cape Town | United Nations | World Health Organization | The Conversation | Daily Maverick | University of Cape Town

Related: San Diego company turns sewage water to drinking water

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