Three things we can take away from Cape Town’s “Day Zero”

As Cape Town continues to run out of water and braces itself for “Day Zero”, when water taps in businesses and homes would be shut off, the various potentially devastating impacts of such an event is beginning to dawn on many.

After suffering from intense drought for three years, residents will now have to queue up at state-managed water distribution points to receive a meagre 25 litres of water a day, less than half of the water a person needs for an average shower. Experts have not only predicted that some pipes may crack due to dry conditions and thus threatening water distribution in the future if and when the water rationing ends, but also that public health may decrease, with poor sanitation resulting in dangerous diseases spreading at a faster rate among the city’s poorest residents in particular.

Helen Zille, the Premier of the Western Cape, even advised that in the chaos that may follow the day wherein the water supply is cut off, “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.”

While Cape Town is an example of one of the more extreme instances of water scarcity, the issue is not a new one, with other major cities such as Los Angeles, United States (U.S.) also suffering from it, victims of poor water management and climate change.

But according to Betsy Otto and Leah Schleifer, there are three things cities can learn from Cape Town.


Understanding risks

With water risk growing in cities all over the world with climate change affecting the hydrologic cycle and intensifying droughts and rainfall, city populations are still on the rise, with some studies estimating that each week, three million people flock to metropolises, increasingly demand and competition over limited resources.

Different cities have different levels of precipitation and water stress. And although city official and authorities are aware of the risks posed to the cities under their responsibility and take steps to mitigate them, it is hard to predict whether the length and intensity of droughts and rainfall patterns, among others would defy the norm to culminate in certain events such as flooding, or in Cape Town’s case, severe water scarcity.

Now, in the midst of rapidly-changing landscapes and environmental concerns, cities need to carefully monitor and predict the rising demands and population growth against the backdrop of climate change as well as unique risks and challenges, and plan accordingly, as Otto and Schleifer stated in their article for the World Resources Institute.


Manage the water budget

Water is a finite resource, no matter where it is sourced from, including natural reservoirs, watersheds, or underground aquifers. But a diverse collection of users would be competing for the same water. Thus, it is responsibility of the city to manage its water budget in this context, to understand the water sources and users, and proceed to allocate the limited resource within the realities.

But while water management is easier in times of plentiful rainfall, it is a challenge in a period of drought. One solution that can be subscribed to is for city planners and water utilities to collaborate and proactively introduce integrated urban water management strategies that look at potable water, stormwater, and wastewater more comprehensively, allowing them to build up greater efficiency and resilience. Moreover, this would also allow authorities to look at water sources more holistically.


Building and investing in resilience

In order to better stand up to a changing climate and booming populations, cities have to be resilient to unexpected circumstances, according to Otto and Schleifer. Investing in water efficiency is crucial to pinpointing various opportunities to harvesting rainwater, storing water, and treating and reusing wastewater, thus increasing a city’s resilience to drought and rising competition for limited water.

Moreover, according to Otto and Schleifer, metropolises should also invest in natural infrastructure as well – in green spaces much like wetlands and forests that can not only safeguard cities against floods and storms, but also regulate water flow in drier seasons. Research has also shown that when natural infrastructure is combined with traditional infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants, jobs are created. In essence, cities would be protected against the impacts of climate change while also saving money on water treatment.


Source: World Resources Institute