Cities should take notice as water supply dwindles in Cape Town

The startling pace at which the South African city's crisis developed makes for a cautionary tale

People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb as fears over the city's water crisis grow in Cape Town, South Africa, January 25, 2018. Picture taken January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

"Day Zero" is looming in Cape Town with an estimated 10 weeks until the city cuts off water to its homes and businesses. When that happens, the four million inhabitants of Africa's third wealthiest city will be forced to queue for hours to collect rations of drinking water. Fears of social unrest and even violence are justified. The reasons for this crisis include rapid population growth (up 79 per cent since 1995), the worst drought in a century and failures of governance. Metropolises worldwide face a similar threat; until recently Cape Town had done more than most. It made strides in reducing water consumption and increased efficiency, scooping international water management awards in the process. But ultimately officials proved short-sighted, expecting the rains to come. The startling pace with which Cape Town's crisis developed make it a cautionary tale.

Water starvation has shed light on the inequality that has blighted South African cities for decades. An attractive tourist destination, Cape Town is encircled by sprawling township communities, where residents obtain water from communal taps. Meanwhile in wealthy coastal communities, profligacy abounds. With a limit of 50 litres per person daily, it is now illegal to use taps to fill swimming pools, water gardens or wash cars. Nevertheless, township life is characterised by resource scarcity. In 2008, riots targeting migrants swept through the country as poor residents expressed their anger at the lack of utilities and employment opportunities in their communities. When “Day Zero” arrives, Cape Town’s residents will come face-to-face with the inequalities that underpin it.

Strategies are underway to deal with the emergency. Most are too little too late. 200 emergency water stations will be strategically located across the city, each serving almost 20,000 residents. Desalination plants and new water wells are under construction, though most are behind schedule. Other cities should learn from this inadequate response. Officials in Melbourne, Australia predict supply will end in a decade. Sao Paulo, Brazil and Mexico City already limit household supply. Many major Indian cities lack sufficient water. With the climate changing and populations rising, cities in this region, too, should take note. The case of Cape Town proves makes one thing abundantly clear: in times of low supply, we can't simply close our eyes and hope for rain.