The water crisis in Cape Town (and other parts of South Africa), is a convergence of 3 years of drought, population explosion and poor planning to improve conservation strategies and infrastructure. The first alarms about this possibility came about 10 years ago apparently. One issue only recently added to the conversation, is the intersection regarding energy sources, specifically coal, and its massive use of water. In Cape Town, we need to look at how coal and other fossil fuels contribute to climate change, but we also need to look at the contribution coal has on the depletion of water resources; which will be an issue in many places around the world. In the article from my blog, shown below, I provide my recent experiences around the water crisis here in Cape Town. Luckily since I created that posting in February, Day Zero has been pushed later, into August. This is due to the conservation efforts of everyday people here, not because we have had more rain. One of the links on my blog goes to the Water Dashboard showing the ongoing updates to the status of things. If, after reading the article below, you want to help, there are many ways to do so. One organization that I support is the Cape of Good Hope SPCA which is trying to help animals that are suffering because of the drought. Please consider donating to this organization.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Save Water While We Have It!
And Don’t Panic!
As the water crisis is in full-swing in Cape Town, I thought it useful to give an update on what I know. The Western Cape, particularly the part where Cape Town is located, has been in a drought for the past 3 years. In addition, Cape Town is now a city of 4 million, a double in its population since 1996; plus, it is estimated there are 10 million visitors a year to the area. The reservoirs that serve the area were not built with either these two critical factors in mind, increased population and decreased rainfall. The reservoirs are currently around 25-26% of capacity and if the supply drops below 14%, there will not be enough water to run the system nor keep the main business area functioning. So, if the level drops that low, we will be at Day Zero when the taps are turned off, although the central business district and the informal settlements will be exempt while supply lasts. If Day Zero actually occurs, we would be required to take our 25-liter jugs to the hundreds of water stations that will be set up – that will be the individual daily ration. Unfortunately, many do not have transport, so that will be another logistic to contend with.
So Draconian water restrictions are in place, a limit of 50 liter per day per person, and there are many creative ways many if not most are trying to adhere to – like taking shorter and fewer showers, doing laundry less often, not flushing the toilet each time (and not depositing toilet paper into the toilet particularly just for urine), reducing how much water is used for dishwashing, brushing teeth, etc. Grey water from dishwashing is used for the toilet or to water plants (it is crazy we use potable water for toilets in the first place). I have a little adaptation created by a few colleagues pictured below to attempt to use less water for handwashing or simple rinsing – it is a plastic water bottle to squeeze so that the small drip irrigation tubing delivers less water than a faucet. There is even a restaurant in town that has started creating more dishes that don’t use water or even cooking. Speaking of plastic water bottles, the impact of so many being bought and often not recycled is likely staggering. I have not seen any commentary on this. I almost never buy water in plastic if I can avoid it by now I am purchasing 5-liter bottles and also boiling an extra kettle of water when I make my morning tea, to have for drinking water. I have not heard that there is a problem yet, but I have started to wonder – either that the levels are too low to actually dilute what buggers may be hanging around, or that the system will require more chlorine. This is purely my own opinion and I have not seen any information to corroborate my ideas.
Of course, the disparities between the haves- and the haven-nots appear in these circumstances. Many in the informal settlements here, and in many communities around the world, where there is no plumbing have been living bucket-to-bucket for years. Here in the well-to-do suburbs, many have access to bore holes to access ground water or they have swimming pools functioning as storage capacity (theoretically they are not to be filled with city or ground water, but only rain water). It is hard to tell whether compliance with the restrictions is equitably distributed.
Some have asked about desalination as an option. I heard a good lecture recently about water issues and that question came up. According to this person, Kevin Winter, the technology is not up to the task here or in many areas, besides that it is very expensive. Current technology relies on reverse osmosis which is problematic where the water source has pollution issues and can cause blockages in the system, which is the case in this area. There are 3 small desalination plants in the area that will be up and running in March but they are too small to make a difference and are considered more on the scale of demonstration projects. There is a great deal of high tech modeling going on about the water supply and all the many options that could capture more from rainwater (lots of people have large tanks at home), ground water, surface water recapture (rain gardens were discussed) and improved waste treatment. Also, making sure leakage in the system is addressed and all efforts to maintain accurate measurements of what is happening in a system is essential.
The demand for water is also great in agriculture where approximately 50% of the water goes. Right now, however, farmers are taking the biggest hit as their supply was shut off recently – with many admitting that farmers are essentially donating water to Cape Town. This could have implications for food supply if things become more severe. In a recent discussion I heard, it was acknowledged that farmers here are the most conservative with water use and have a much better understanding of the balances needed in the system. There are certainly public health implications of this water crisis related to hygiene, sanitation and dehydration, etc. There is a link below with a good summary of these issues to consider.
Although this is not the rainy season, one night recently we had one of the biggest thunder, lighting and rain storms I have seen since I arrived in August. It moved the Day Zero prediction from mid-May into June which will be the beginning of winter and hopefully a more sustained rainfall -although the past 3 years have not been enough to avoid where we are now. But the conservation measures in place and the relentless attention to the problems and the crisis has helped move the date of Day Zero as much as the recent rain.
While Cape Town may be the first major city in the world to consider turning off the taps, it is not the first to get close to this point and will not be the last. Cape Town water supply was at this same level in 2005 but was saved by the rains that time. San Paolo came close in 2017; Melbourne Australia is on the brink of a similar crisis. In 2017, some parts of Italy had an 80% drop in its normal water supply and 2,500 fountains in Rome were turned off. So the lessons being learned here apply anywhere and this should be seen as a wake-up call, and the role of climate change that is hurling us into these stark realities.
In addition to the link on the public health issues of the water crisis, I have included two links below – one that shows the dam levels in the area and the other is the Dashboard for the Day Zero date prediction.
The Dam Levels are Critical for Cape Town’s water supply and are a key contributor to the
Environmental Defence Fund article: The energy reality behind Cape Town’s water crisis. Burning coal wastes water resources