Let’s not make Cape Town face of our water future

Mega cities, the face of aspiration and progress of the modern world, have bad news in Cape Town that has become the face of Water Emergency.  According to the United Nations, water scarcity already hits more than 40 percent of the globe’s population and is expected to aggravate further due to global warming that will make one in four people face chronic or recurring shortage of water by 2050.  At Cape City, this future has arrived, in a much fiercer and scary way.

Drought stricken Cape Town of about 4 million people is facing severe shortage of water due to low rainfall for a consecutive three-year period. The city is working on a war footing to avoid a Day Zero that was to come in mid-April but is now shifted to 11th May, thanks to water rationing both by domestic consumers and agriculture.  Looking at the disaster management plan of the City authorities, that is being updated each day, one would realise how terrifying it could be for the people of a city when a water emergency stares at their face. The city administration says they are prepared to move mountains to solve the crisis, but the question is, ‘can they really?’. The Day Zero is only about three months away.

Some estimates say that the city adds 50000 people per month and the water demand for the city has grown by leaps and bounds.  Dams and water supply projects were started to be built from the mid-1600s and at a point of time, in early 1900s, it looked that the city was having more water being supplied than it demanded.  Dams, their augmentation and the supply systems have been very regular and aggressive.  Restrictions of water use have also been taken up from time to time as and when drought struck.

Warnings ignored

Experts had warned that the City would start facing severe water crisis from 2012 onwards but the city planners did not care much.  They always felt that the numerous dams and water supply systems would be able to supply required water to the city population. Had they cared for expert advice and checked leakages in the supply that stands somewhere around 40 per cent at the moment, things would have been much better. There have also been siltation problems for the dams.  The city has also been advised by various agencies to work seriously on recycling of water and desalination of sea water.  However, that too has not been heeded to, allege many.

Now the city authorities are desperately seeking help from people to reduce their water consumption to below 50 litres per person per day. This will bring the collective consumption to 450 million litres a day. People have so far cooperated as they are scared of the Zero Day for which the city has made extensive arrangement of police to prevent water riots.

Day Zero will take effect when dam levels are at 13.5 percent and that can be delayed if people cooperate, say the city authorities.  When the Day Zero arrives the municipality will take control of municipal water supply in a phased manner in order to stretch this supply, until the dams are at a sufficient level to allow water to be distributed via the reticulation system once again. Household taps will run completely dry, public taps will be opened with heavy police & military protection; and, water will get costlier.



Two water worlds will emerge, one for the rich and another for the poor

New water equation scenarios will emerge.  According to the city authorities, densely populated informal settlements will stay connected, as many of them are already using standpipes to collect water. Critical infrastructure, population density and risk profile for disease outbreak are some of the factors that the City will take into account to decide which areas stay connected. That’s good planning but the worry is when the city says it won’t cut commercial supplies.

Strategic commercial areas, high-density areas with significant risk of increased burden of disease, and critical services, such as hospitals and clinics, where possible, will continue to receive drinking water through the reticulation network. The authorities say that their priority will be to keep strategic economic areas and industrial areas connected, in order for the economy to continue to function, to minimise the impact of this disaster on job losses, and ensure that people continue to get paid.  This will certainly result in water wars that the city would not want to take place.  Water inequality will also substantially grow as the city plans to let rich people keep receiving normal water supply at household levels by paying very high costs.  Common people will also pay a higher monthly tariff but will have to fight for water standing in long queues.  More than 400 years of water planning and dam building has not really helped the city avoid such a scary scenario.

Wake up call for Indian cities

Cities back in India need to learn from this.  Many of our cities too are starting to face severe water shortage and are doing too little or almost nothing to protect, augment and rejuvenate their water resources.  If not our own hundreds of examples of water riots then at least Cape Town should serve as a wakeup call for our city planners.  Let’s build water smart cities and not just concrete jungles!

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