by Andrew hallet

CAPE TOWN DROUGHT

The realities of climate change and a city on its knees

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Cape Town currently finds itself on the brink of serious disaster. The drought which the city is experiencing has wreaked havoc on its water supplies, and it is quite possible that The Mother City will become the first major city in the world to run out of water. This is a stark reality, and one that those who call the city home are living every day.

Level 6B water restrictions are currently in place for the city of Cape Town - and it is no joke. No more than 50 litres of water may be used by a person on any given day. While '50 litres' may sound like a fair amount of water, it really isn't. Essentially, that amount of water is enough for a 90-second shower, one flush of the toilet, and just two-litres of drinking water. If you are lucky, you have some left over for washing of clothes. Again, this is no joke, and it is unlikely to get much better anytime soon.

The City of Cape Town has announced that it will reassess the restrictions come June 2018. As the city receives its rain during the winter months, on the face of things, the situation should start to improve by that point, right? Well, therein lies the problem; Cape Town has not had its normal rainfall for the past few years, meaning that the 2018 rainy season is not being looked upon favourably either, with long-term forecasts not helping the mood of the city. While it is conceivable that Cape Town will avoid running out completely - #DayZero, as it has been coined, right now, the future does look bleak, as below average rainfall again in the winter of 2018 will put the city in exactly the same position next year - if not a worse one.

So while people point their fingers at various people and organisations for this mess, the reality is that the small matter of climate change has played a major role in where Cape Town finds itself today. Yes, Cape Town is not the only city in the world to be affected by climate change, but it has been one of the worst affected, with the bone-dry dams and wilting vegetation a reminder that if we do not take care of the planet we live on, all of its inhabitants will be in for a rocky ride in the years to come. It is quite a simple equation, and one that not enough people are interested in working out.

According to Wikipedia, climate change is 'a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time.' This is exactly what we are seeing in Cape Town right now. The online encyclopedia goes on to say, 'Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have been identified as primary causes of ongoing climate change, often referred to as global warming.' So while it is only natural for the planet to be affected by conditions of its own doing, the one scary part is the fact that us humans are not innocent here. We have become obsessed with growing our civilisation and bettering it that little to no attention over the past few decades has been paid to the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, we are producing and polluting our planet with. These greenhouse gases wreak havoc on Earth's climate - and we are now starting to see the effects. If you weren't worried before, you should be now, as it is only going to get worse.

So with climate change clearly at play when it comes to Cape Town's current dire situation, and its potential effects known about for well over a decade, what has actually been done to ensure a situation of this magnitude was avoided? Sadly, not enough. The first warning signs of this drought came in the early 1990s, with a newspaper article in the Cape Times predicting that this drought was coming, and that the city was not properly prepared for it. Again, in 2007 and 2012, more articles were published warning the city of the effects of climate change and global warming, as well as the inadequacies of the city's dams and ability to provide the most basic of resources. Did anyone listen? Not really.

A number of different political parties have governed the city since that first article in 1990, and far too much attention has been paid to issues of far less importance than the potential of running out of water. Everyone hoped that it was a case of 'The boy who cried wolf', but that wolf is here now, and it is baying for blood.

Yes, the rise in population numbers in Cape Town has put major strain on resources, but again, the increased trend of growing populations and migrations from elsewhere are not unheard of, so some of the blame needs to squarely be put on governments door. A failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

That failure has cost Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille her credibility in office, with corruption charges hanging over her head. While she has always been defiant in the face of this drought, more than meets the eye has come back to haunt her, and it is likely to cost her the career in politics which she fought so hard to carve out for herself. While it would be foolish to blame de Lille for everything that is wrong with Cape Town right now, her inability to push forward and give the city the hope through planning and action for this drought has left a sour taste in the mouths of many, and in reality those same mouths may soon become dry from a lack of water.

What this drought is also doing is sadly gifting political parties the chance to one-up each other, with the pointing of fingers and 'I told you so's' more than just a parting shot, but rather a very real argument. The people suffer when this happens, as the focus becomes more about who can squeeze their way into power of one of the most important regions in the country, rather than how that very same important region is going to be saved from complete ruin and disaster.

Putting the political issues to one side is the only way forward, but what exactly does the government in charge of Cape Town have in mind when it comes to fighting off #DayZero, and the plethora of issues which would come with the taps running dry?

The first thing the city has done is implement the aforementioned water restrictions. Thankfully, the people of Cape Town have listened - to a point, and water usage has dropped significantly. The target of using less than 450-million litres of water per day, although not realised yet, is becoming more of a reality than a pipedream. The current usage is estimated at 540-million litres per day.

Then there is the small matter of creating more water to add to the system. 'Desalination' is the buzzword around Cape Town, with three temporary desalination plants - Strandfontein, V&A Waterfront, and Monwabisi, set to add around 18-million litres of water per day to the system by the end of March. The process of desalination is taking sea water and turning into consumable water. It is a pricey process and one which will no doubt add extra strain to the already weighed-down city coffers. While these will help, they are a mere drop in the ocean (excuse the pun). They have also come at a time where 'desperation' is the general mood, rather than 'hope'. A little too late, say the masses.

But what of the natural springs provided by the mountains and the underground water which continues to run off into the ocean, you may be asking? Well, there is still a cloud hanging over what the city plans to do with those sources of clean water. There may not be any, if the current state of planning and execution is anything to go by. This is a case of 'wait and see', sadly.

While the usage is dropping on a daily basis, and a bit of 'relief' came in the shape of some rain in early February, the dams continue to run dry, with another dip experienced in February. The current dam levels total 22.6%. That figure is over 11% down on the levels recorded at the same time in 2017. While this is a worrying statistic for anyone reading this, Anton Bredell, the minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in the Western Cape, believes the goal of avoiding #DayZero is still very much possible.

According to The South African, Bredell says: “We remain optimistic going forward that we will see the province into its usual winter rainfall period with some water left in the system, provided that water consumption continues to be driven down. We require the continued support and water saving by the public and other stakeholders. In the metro region this means using less than 50 litres per person per day, if we are to avoid a day zero scenario where the city may have to turn taps off to further manage the system. The largest dam providing water to Cape Town, the Theewaterskloofdam is currently 11.7% full. This dam is however being managed purposefully downwards, with water being purposely pumped to other neighbouring Cape Town system dams. These include the Steenbras Upper dam (81% full) and the Berg river dam (52% full). The reasoning is that this makes a huge saving on the evaporation of water – a significant contributor to water losses in the province. The entire province barring a few places only, remains at risk and in the grips of the drought. Moving forward it requires a continued team effort to get through the situation. We want to urge the public to continue to reduce water usage.”

Reading those quotes will no doubt encourage some people, but others will still feel they are having the wool pulled over their eyes by those in charge of the city. Why has this been allowed to happen? Why has government failed to plan for this? Why is the only solution to this problem the citizens saving water? Those are very important questions and ones which need to be answered by government very soon, but until such a time as it is possible for Cape Town to use water a little more freely, the importance of saving every drop and reusing grey water will be the reality, the new norm... 

Andrew Hallett

*Since article was written, Patricia de Lille survived the City of Cape Town council vote and Day Zero, for the time being, has been defeated.

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