Over the last week, level 5 water restrictions have been introduced in Cape Town, South Africa. This implementation, set forth on September 3, 2017, means that the province is now undergoing its harshest measures to prevent a life-threatening water shortage.
The crisis has escalated rapidly, as the province’s dams have gone from overflowing to around 32% capacity since 2014. Before the level 5 restrictions, residents were already facing tight regulations for water usage, with a cap at 87 litres per day on individual water use. This may initially seem like a lot, but that perception changes with the understanding that every one minute of shower time adds up to ten litres of water. Thus, a single ten-minute shower at 90 litres vastly exceeds the individual water limit.
The level 5 restrictions are an addition to these measures, which initially only affected individual water usage. With immediate effect, managers of commercial properties must now reduce their monthly consumption of municipal water by 20%. Patricia de Lille, Mayor of Cape Town, said that the cap on domestic usage is now set at 20 kilolitres per month. If broken, a “very high fine” will be issued to the property owner. The figure is yet to be finalized by the Chief Magistrate, but fines are estimated to be between R5,000 and R10,000.
De Lille said the original 87-litre cap will remain, with an overall collective target of 500 million litres per day in the city. Methods to prevent over-usage are now a hot topic in South Africa’s media, with sites such as taptips (i.e. suggesting washing the dishes once per day, flushing the toilet as little as possible, and limiting oneself to a two-minute shower per day). Statistics from the site also show that the average bath uses 80 litres of water alone and a power shower uses 125 litres in less than five minutes.
It’s clear that when it comes to personal usage, showering and bathing are the biggest drain. For residents, the use of bucket baths is a good option to measure water consumption without the time limit of the shower. Filling a bucket with around ten litres of water and using a smaller bucket to throw the water over the head is a timeless and relatively elegant solution. For some, it may seem a step back from the modern world, but this is more a question of customs than any real problem with the efficiency of washing.
Mayor de Lille commented that all water users, except commercial properties, have shown a decrease in consumption over the last year, demonstrating the effectiveness of the restrictive measures. When it comes to commercial use, “users can reduce their consumption by installing water-efficient plumbing fittings and water-saving devices,” says de Lille.
After looking at some of the reverberations of the crisis, it’s important to look at the causes. Why is Cape Town in a seemingly sudden situation of low water supply? There are a few reasons:
As more and more people migrate to cities from rural villages, the pressure on the city to meet water demands is ever-increasing. While the population increases in Cape Town, water usage must decrease. Since 1995, the city’s population has grown 55% from around 2.4 million to an expected 4.3 million in 2018. Dam storage has only increased by 15%, however, which does not parallel the needs of the population.
With regards to climate, many parts of Southern Africa are experiencing harsh drought. Many link this situation with the ever-growing urgency of human-caused global warming, where the excessive use of energy in first world countries creates pollution and fumes that affect the earth’s atmosphere, and thus affect the state of the climate. 87% of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil.
The emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is on the rise due to the expansion and continuation of carbon-emitting processes, such as fossil fuel combustion, affects the temperature of the earth. “There is no doubt that pressure and temperature are related. So disturb the temperature, you disturb the pressure and you start to see different systems operating,” says Kevin Winter, a lecturer in Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town.
Winter’s analysis is one explanation for how bigger systems, such as fossil fuel usage in other parts of the world, affects the climate elsewhere. What seems definite, is that the drought in Cape Town is not a short-term problem, but rather still developing into an inevitably worse situation unless there’s a sudden change to trigger monsoon weather, which is highly unlikely.
Many sources such as News24 cry out for substantial government intervention to make Cape Town’s water supply sustainable. Lifetime Cape Town resident Paula Lotter says that Johannesburg has plentiful rainfall, “We need a pipe system that brings water down to Cape Town, but infrastructure is expensive.”
The situation is nearing “Day 0,” when the taps will be switched off. Following government advice, people are buying 5-litre water bottles from shops in preparation, “like a relaxed version of doomsday prepping,” says Paula.
Whilst the City of Cape Town is described as “drought-stricken” by TimesLive, the use of recreational water-heavy activities, almost absurdly, continues. The inclination to jump in a pool, however, doesn’t seem so absurd when imagining a landscape of continuous dry heat. Drought equals heat, equals a greater need for water. Despite this, the upkeep of swimming pools must be reassessed to ensure the availability of sufficient drinking water. Golf courses are still in high demand among the wealthy, which require a lot of water to maintain smooth green grass.
Water recreation sites in the form of lagoons are a fantastic alternative solution. These facilities can be far more efficient than even an environmentally friendly golf course, and they’re generally more suitable for every age and gender. If constructed properly, a three-hectare lagoon uses 30 times less water than a golf course and requires half the amount of water to maintain a park of the same size. These facilities also don’t require fresh water and can be created and maintained using salt or previously unusable brackish water.
As rain is less frequent, the country’s water supply has declined. The rapid thirst of local dams has seen Cape Town commencing the building of a desalination plant, which is set to be ready soon.
More than just water usage has been affected by this situation, however, with estimates that 17,000 jobs in the agricultural industry could be lost due to the drought, meaning less demand for workers in this sector.
The problem is complex and in need of urgent governmental action. Paula’s suggestion of a refined pipe system in order to efficiently collect necessary water seems to be the most practical solution. Primary barriers to this are the labour required and the money. With the urgency of the situation and the long-term prediction of its existence, however, it seems investment is the wisest option for everyone.
To combat the problem on a deeper level, a worldwide assessment of carbon emissions and similarly effective restrictions as those of Cape Town’s levelled measures towards the water crisis could hugely advance the way we contribute to climate change as a globe. A personal carbon dioxide meter and caps on industrial production could revolutionize the reality of lowering emissions, with laws and subsequent fines taking immediate effect over the apparently dismissible threat of global warming.
This crisis is not about just one city: Cape Town’s drought is a warning from the earth, a signal for help.
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