Countdown to Zero: no water and no hope – but are there options?

Drop of water coming out of a metal tap

David Lewis Feldman looks at the impending Day Zero in Cape Town, and explores what this may teach other cities about potential water crises.

In three months the distribution system supplying water to fully one-million homes, some 75% of your city’s four-million residents, will be shut-off. Officials call this event “Day Zero:” the date when your region’s storage reservoirs are slated to fall below 13% of capacity. In preparation, 200 emergency collection points are being established to distribute a six-and-a-half-gallon per person per day ration. The military and local police are on standby alert in the event riots erupt, and to control unruly crowds gathered at distribution points.

There’s been a month long run on stockpiles of bottled water, while hardware stores have exhausted supplies of water tanks and pool covers. Well-drillers are overwhelmed with requests to mine groundwater, and even dehumidifiers, marketed as “water from air” devices, can no longer be found. Many businesses have put up signs advising customers to conserve water, and residents are sharing stories about how they plan to cope with this emergency – often while queueing up at local springs to collect freshwater ahead of Day Zero.

Is this doomsday scenario the script from some yet-to-be released Hollywood disaster movie; or, the premise for some imaginative video game? In actuality, it’s Cape Town, South Africa, a city suffering through a one-in-384-year drought, and that may soon become the world’s first major metropolis in a developed country to literally run out of water as a result of protracted drought – the magnitude of which is attributed to climate change.

Whether the worst comes to pass or no, three things are already apparent. First, Cape Town’s saga is a likely harbinger of challenges that will soon face many of the world’s cities, particularly those in arid regions. Should climate extremes worsen – as many believe is likely – identifying alternative sources of supply will become an urgent priority. Second, as urban populations grow and demands inevitably increase, plans to meet these needs may take years to implement. And, third, the speed and degree of penetration of any new alternatives will be affected by numerous constraints. In all cities facing acute water stress – from Los Angeles, California to Sao Paulo, Brazil; Melbourne, Australia to Mumbai, India– proposals to adopt wastewater reuse, rainwater harvesting, desalination, and/or demand-side approaches will require a strong, united consensus to be acted upon. Cape Town’s odyssey affords us insights into three major challenges affecting consensus.

1. Avoiding water crises requires long-term planning and coordinated governmental response.

While city officials can’t be blamed for the drought, there is evidence warning signs were ignored and officials at all levels practiced poor “crisis management.” Cape Town’s water infrastructure has long struggled to keep pace with growing demands, and when the drought began, city leaders merely advised residents to become “water aware.” Over 25 years ago, a government-sponsored Water Research Commission recommended building a wastewater reuse plant as a hedge against local reservoirs becoming depleted in a future drought. Plans were launched to make the city more resilient by diversifying supplies with wells and small desalination plants. These were not slated for completion until after 2020. Moreover, while flagrant water wasting actions have been banned, the city dropped a proposed “drought levy” to fine the worst abusers, and a lack of coordination between national and provincial officials has not helped matters any. Provincial officials blame the African National Congress for not building more infrastructure. However, local officials did not recognize the impact of rapid population growth (Cape Town’s population has doubled since 1999) on the depth of the crisis. The city’s mayor is facing a no-confidence vote for efforts to re-assure citizens rather than taking more forthright action.

2. Be prepared to spend lots of money –solutions are available, but they won’t be cheap

While every city’s situation is to some extent unique, generalizations are possible. A recent California-centered study concluded that while developing alternative supplies via wastewater reuse, stormwater harvesting, or desalination may in some cases be less expensive than traditional remedies such as “importing” freshwater, they may also be more costly on a per-unit of water produced basis. This is because they consume more energy, require acquisition of land, and face costly regulatory hurdles. While alternative sources are clearly more advantageous in affording long-term resilience for cities such as Cape Town – officials need to be honest about these costs, and the revenue streams that will be needed to pay for innovations. One compensating fact is the cost of doing nothing. It’s been estimated that some 300,000 jobs in agriculture and tens of thousands more in the service, hospitality and food sectors will be lost in Cape Town when Day Zero strikes, while additional lost revenues from people queuing up for water will take a further toll on the local economy. Ironically, the collection points the city will establish on Day Zero will cost the equivalent of some $15 million (U.S.) to install and operate – and the water will be distributed free or, at a loss in city revenue.

3. Engineering and infrastructure are important, but public trust and perceived fairness are critical

While the magnitude of Cape Town’s impending crisis may dwarf other cities’ experiences, the underlying issues of trust and confidence among members of the public, as well as the perceived fairness of the costs of the drought and benefits of various proposed solutions, is very much on peoples’ minds. As the crisis proceeds, Cape Town officials have promised that standpipes will continue to flow in informal settlements after Day Zero.

However, there is much skepticism, especially in neighborhoods populated by traditionally under-represented groups. A key lesson from cities such as Melbourne, Australia – which have weathered serious drought – is the need for public engagement processes that elicit concerns about various options; seriously weigh and address them through providing sound information; and build community trust and confidence in the competence of officials to implement novel, sometimes little understood solutions. These include wastewater reuse and stormwater harvesting for non-potable household use.

In sum, for Cape Town today – and other cities in the future – implementing options to ensure long-term water supply resilience will remain a complex challenge given varied water needs, climates, and political and legal constraints. Cape Town serves as a warning of what might come to pass if we ignore the warning signs. More hopefully, it may also function as a “teachable moment” regarding how all of us need to better prepare for future water crises in light of climate change and growing urban water demands.


David Lewis Feldman, Professor, Department of Planning, Policy and Design and Professor of Political Science, University of California, Irvine, US


Feldman WaterThe Water-Sustainable City is now available in paperback.

Read chapter one on Elgaronline.

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