While recent rainfall has brought some reprieve to the drought-plagued City of Cape Town, the region remains vulnerable, and people, politics and poor planning are predominantly to blame for most urban water shortages, water expert Professor Mike Muller has said.
In an opinion piece published in international journal of science Nature, this week, he said Cape Town was one of several cities to see its water supply fail in the past decade and its challenges are owing, largely, to a move away from water management based on science and risk assessment towards a more populist approach.
This trend is not unique to South Africa, he said, citing similar recent experiences in São Paulo, Brazil; in Barcelona, Spain; and in Australia, which all held precedents for their dry spells being exacerbated by political decisions.
“São Paulo’s drought risk was highlighted in hydrological models, but wrangling between city, state and national governments delayed action for a decade. In Barcelona, a surprise 2004 election win saw the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party stop a long-planned programme of dam development and river transfers because of a manifesto commitment to regional allies,” said Muller.
“In Australia, as in Cape Town, environmental opposition to dams and desalination increased cities’ vulnerabilities to a multiyear drought,” he added.
Muller pointed out that big cities needed to begin informed long-range planning and to focus on minimising risks from current climate variability.
While climate change added to the uncertainties, water shortages attributed to extreme weather or to global warming are more often owing to poor management.
“People’s beliefs and behaviour are as much a part of the systems to be managed as are pipes, pumps and the environment,” he said.
South Africa’s decades-old successful systems models to guide water management had already, in 2009, flagged a need to boost Cape Town’s water supplies after 2015, to meet rising demand from urban and industrial growth; however, officials delayed big capital investments.
“Now, Cape Town’s leaders are working feverishly to build the schemes that were recommended back in 2009 for managing groundwater, reuse and surface supply,” he said.
The direct costs of the water crisis — reduced water revenue, losses in agricultural jobs and production and indirect costs such as a drop in tourism — have surpassed R2.5-billion, while consumers face further pressure as water tariffs are raised by 26% this year.
In comparison, investing R1-billion in infrastructure in 2013/14 would have cost just R75-million a year in interest charges — that would have been cheap insurance, even if it had proved unnecessary, he said.
Muller cited the success of China, which managed to keep water flowing in some of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities through responsive government planning and major infrastructure projects.
However, the greatest challenge for managers of urban water supplies is often obtaining political decisions timeously, and with public support; however, there is no universal best-practice approach to achieve this.
Beyond implementing strong centralised systems such as China’s, improving cooperation between the various organisations involved might help.
As water needs grow and water systems evolve, more resources will need to be devoted to monitoring and modelling; technical guidance must be integrated into political processes, with hydrologists collaborating with experts from the social sciences and humanities, notably economics, policy and law, to develop water-management tools that decision-makers and the public can understand and use.
Finally, practitioners also need to monitor and model peoples’ behaviour.
“Cities must move from crisis responses to effective management of the water that is essential to lives, livelihoods and environments. Day Zeroes are not inevitable,” Muller noted.
Meanwhile, dam levels in the Western Cape have reached an average level of 47.2%, a significant rise on the levels of 24% during this time last year.
The dams feeding the City of Cape Town are even better off at 53%, compared with 25% in 2017.
“A lot of rain has helped replenish groundwater, but we need to allow the system to recover as much as possible ahead of the summer season. In addition, some areas remain stressed, particularly the Karoo region where the rainfall has not provided adequate relief yet,” Western Cape Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning Minister Anton Bredell said on Monday.