Cape Town’s water scarcity offers lessons

By Kathleen Naday Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/7 20:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The language used is like that of an action movie - "Day Zero." This is the day that Cape Town, a major city of 4 million people, will run out of water. The city's government website displays a large banner on top counting down to the date - currently set at July 15 - that the city is expected to run out of water from its dams and other sources. At this point, the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan will kick in, and almost all the city's taps will be turned off. There will be 200 water access points set up, each serving 20,000 people, where residents will have to line up for a daily quota. Currently, there is a quota for households to use 50 liters a day - one-sixth of the average water use in the US. After Day Zero, the quota will be just 25 liters a day.

Although, according to a report in the National Geographic on Monday, the situation was exacerbated by three consecutive years of drought, the city was caught short. It had improved its water management, but in a semi-arid area that appeals to migrants, this was not enough. Consumption patterns were based on historical records, but the climate is changing. The economic impact is uncertain, at a time when the South African economy is sluggish - and the national government is to launch an inquiry into possible mismanagement of water resources, Reuters reported.

Although the dire situation in Cape Town has captured the world's attention - just how can a modern city in 2018 run out of water? - this is far from the first time a major metropolis has come close to a water disaster. In 2015, Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million, came within 20 days of the taps running dry, a situation blamed on deforestation, climate change, increased population, pollution, old infrastructure and bad planning. Yet Brazil has 12 percent of global fresh water resources.

California was hit by a five-year drought, which increased the risk of wild fires and hit the state's agricultural economy, and only recovered in 2017. But again this winter, some 20 percent of the state has plunged back into drought, with only 37 percent of the normal winter snowfall, according to local media. Areas across the Middle East, Australia and in Sub-Saharan Africa are also in severe danger of water crisis. Other major global mega cities such as Mexico City and Jakarta are also in danger. A NASA study found that a third of the world's largest groundwater basins are "in distress." These are in areas where aquifers provide the main source of water, but are not being sufficiently replenished - with the worst being the Arabian Aquifer System, the Indus Basin, and others in North Africa and California.

And here in Beijing, the entire winter has not seen any meaningful precipitation. China's meteorological authorities say that there may be slight rainfall in mid-March, but till now the city has been dry as a bone for more than 130 days. When it reached 116 days, it was already a record-breaking dry spell, and although the cause has been attributed to the La Nina weather phenomenon, Beijing has always been dry. The North China Aquifer System is also highly stressed, NASA says.

A BBC report looks at the 11 cities after Cape Town likely to run out of water - Beijing is third after Sao Paulo and Jakarta - but even cities like Moscow (No.6), London (No.9) and Miami (No.11) are in danger.  A recent report in the Financial Times headlined "China's acute water shortage imperils economic future" claimed that progress toward dealing with drought is too slow, despite major government efforts such as the South-to-North Water Diversion Project - which also needs to serve other regions as well as the nation's capital with its 20-million-plus population. The problem is that 80 percent of China's water resources are concentrated in the South. There are also problems of water pollution - which the government is starting to address - but in 2016, a study by the Ministry of Water Resources found that up to 80 percent of the groundwater in China's major river basins was polluted, the South China Morning Post reported.

What can be done? In Cape Town, the city government has introduced a raft of measures - some using the carrot, some the stick to encourage water-saving behaviors from residential, agricultural and industrial consumers. They are constructing desalinization plants - although most of these are behind schedule, according to the city's website. And these plants also consume other resources - desalinization is energy-intensive.

But should the response be just up to consumers? Critics have said that in Cape Town, it is those who can't afford to buy more water that are suffering, while those who can buy more are just not bothering to be so careful about their use. In Beijing, all water use is already metered - but this does not mean people use it responsibly. When I moved into my apartment, I was shocked to be landed with an enormous water bill - a hangover from previous tenants. Turned out the water heater was faulty, and water was just running freely through the system. I've already had two leaks fixed in the kitchen - now there's another one. And the apartments are not even that old - yet the pipes might as well have been fitted 30 years ago. And this is just one apartment. Clearly, there are things that individual users can do, but if the infrastructure is not updated, limiting your shower time won't help. And agriculture and industry are the sectors that really guzzle the water, and this is where more can and should be done to adapt to a low-water future scenario. Crops may need to change, irrigation updated, or water-heavy industries closed or relocated. The water transfer project alone will not be enough if behavior across the board does not change.

But, just as in responses to climate change - and here there is quite a lot of overlap - mitigation is the key. I recently visited Singapore, and was impressed by the number of green buildings - like vertical parks across the city, many linked with walkways and exercise spaces. Its initiatives help control floods and store water - although the city doesn't lack rainfall. In China, there are green city initiatives - but more needs to be done. I live next to the newly opened Central Park Plaza in Beijing - massive black glass towers, all hard landscaping with concrete and few green spaces. If it does ever rain, the water will have nowhere to go but the drains. This is not the way to build in a water-scarce area. I hope North China's record-breaking dry winter will start to concentrate people's attention on water conservation - otherwise, we must all look to Cape Town to see what the future will bring.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer who is doing postgraduate studies in sustainability at SOAS, University of London.

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