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One drop at a time, cities learn from Cape Town's water crisis

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 March 2018 15:18 GMT

Residents fill up a containers with water from a polluted river as the city's water crisis mounts near Cape Town, South Africa, February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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As climate change exacerbates water risks around the world, Cape Town's resilience efforts can help others

Turning on a tap and expecting water to gush out is, for many, a part of daily life they take for granted.

But for hundreds of millions of others, an easily accessible supply of clean drinking water remains out of reach.

That reality has come into sharp focus as South Africa's Cape Town grapples with the worst-recorded drought in its history, pushing it to impose tight restrictions on the use of water.

"Capetonians have responded wonderfully," Gareth Morgan, the city's deputy chief resilience officer, told a discussion hosted by resilience news website Zilient, on urban water challenges this week.

Residents have been asked to curtail their water consumption in order to stave off "Day Zero", when the city would shut off the supply to most of its taps and bring in water rationing.

Partly thanks to citizens' efforts to stick to 50 litres each per day, through measures like swapping showers for sponge baths, that day has gradually been pushed back from next month to next year.

Other steps in the port city of 4 million have included limiting use by farmers, factories, hotels and other businesses, installing smart water meters, and hiking tariffs for big consumers.

"The prospect of Day Zero was in fact very, very real," said Morgan. Despite a recent uptick in usage, the city has this week recorded the lowest consumption in Cape Town so far, he added.

The city is now drawing 500 million-520 million litres a day from six nearby dams, he added. That compares to more than 1 billon litres a day before restrictions were imposed due to the drought, which began in 2015.

Morgan warned other cities around the world to expect climate extremes exacerbated by global warming sooner rather than later.

"Climate change is very real... We're in a deep, deep shock in Cape Town," he said. "We've had to do a significant, live climate adaptation process ... in real time and under considerable stress."


Other cities grappling with drought should draw on the lessons from Cape Town, experts told the webinar.

One attempt to do this is a new global City Water Resilience Framework being developed by multinational engineering firm Arup, in collaboration with The Rockefeller Foundation, World Bank and others.

Pilot projects have been launched in Cape Town, Mexico City, Amman, Greater Miami and Hull in England - cities that face a range of water challenges, from shortages to coastal floods.

These cities will help "co-create" a framework that will become a public resource for all cities to use, offering practical help, said project leader Martin Shouler of Arup.

"We need to take a more holistic view of water," he said, urging cities to move beyond thinking about infrastructure to incorporate the ecosystems that supply water.

Cities' water resources are coming under growing pressure due to climate change, environmental degradation and population growth, he noted, making it more urgent to boost resilience.

The framework aims to enable decision makers to understand their urban water systems and take better investment decisions, helping cities and countries meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, Shouler said.

Four of the framework's pilot cities are also members of The Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities network (100RC), which supports cities in preparing for shocks and stresses like climate change, epidemics or migration.

"Cape Town has done an amazing job," said Katrin Bruebach, who works on urban water innovation at 100RC, adding that the city has reduced its vulnerability in a short time.

More than 80 percent of cities working with 100RC face a regular threat from flooding caused by heavy rainfall, she said, while drought or water insecurity is a problem for about 20 percent.

"Cities have changed their thinking," Bruebach explained. Increasingly, they are adopting a resilience-based approach to crises, which enables them to plan ahead rather than being caught off guard by emergencies.

In Cape Town, in particular, "there's a lot of work going on in the city to actually learn from what happened and to prepare for the future and to adapt to that in a better way", she said.

But this shift requires time, political will and finance, she added. 


Despite falling out of the sky, water doesn't come free in cities. Equipping them to manage risks more effectively costs money that cash-strapped governments often don't have.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global conservation organisation, has developed a public-private partnership model that brings together a range of water users, and mobilises funding.

It has set up 30 funds on four continents, including the recently launched Greater Cape Town Water Fund, that are boosting water security from Nairobi to Quito.

The funds work with local public utilities to deploy "nature-based solutions" such as wetlands protection and ecological restoration to improve the quality and quantity of water for downstream users, said Colin Apse, TNC's freshwater conservation director for Africa.

Removing invasive, non-native plants like the Australian Acacia from the bush around Cape Town, for example, could make more water available, as studies show the plant sucks up about 38 billion litres of water per year, or around 10 percent of the metropolitan area's water supply, noted Apse.
Restoring indigenous vegetation could also create jobs and boost biodiversity, he added.

For Cape Town, with its water shortages far from over, the challenge is to keep up the momentum by normalising the ways people and organisations are economising on water use, and spreading knowledge about how to do that, said Morgan.

"We won't be the last city to experience this," he warned.

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