Lessons to learn from the drought

Thousands of litres gushing into drains in Corporation Street would not have caused a ripple of concern years ago.

Muddy water gushing down a road would not have caused a ripple of concern a couple of years ago.

Now passersby stop, take pictures, post to social media or report it to the municipality.

The world watched as Cape Town dodged Day Zero with pictures of dry dams being broadcast worldwide.

This according to Professor Pablo Garcia-Chevesich, hydrology expert from the University of Arizona who is also director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) who was speaking at the announcement of the W12 Future of Water conference, which will take place in Stellenbosch in May.

He stressed the need for awareness about how rapidly climate change is approaching and the resultant drought, hurricanes, flooding and tornadoes.

He urged residents and governments to learn from other parts of the world which have already had to adapt to survive.

Cities facing similar challenges include Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Istanbul, Moscow, London, Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Jakarta, Tokyo and Miami.

Professor Garcia-Chevesich said Cape Town has dodged running out of water and politicians did not factor climate change into their resource planning.

It is up to all stakeholders to act and adapt so that the future of the city is preserved.

Dr Kevin Winter from the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute said never before have people been more aware of where their water comes from, how they use it and what they do with it afterwards.

“Reducing water demand was the right thing to do. We’re not using anywhere near the amount we were using in 2016 and have adapted well to the restrictions. It’s significant that the City (of Cape Town) reports how much water is used every day and that this information is being reported each week on the City’s website,” said Dr Winter.

“It’s interesting that people are still collecting water from various springs and they choose to do so for a variety of reasons – because they like the taste, they are offsetting their water use from storage dams, they enjoy the ritual of collecting and talking to people in the queues, and in some cases they are selling small quantities – which of course is illegal.”

Dr Winter stressed that our relationship with water has changed.

“To some extent water has earned a bad name because of the threat of Day Zero and water constraints meant that everything about water was about conserving every drop. But we should also be enjoying water, value it more, use what we have more productively including ways of cooling down the city landscape in response to climate change and to work more closely with nature such as planting trees and shrubs for reducing the anticipated rise in temperature,” said Dr Winter.

He painted a picture of a city like Dubai where temperatures can reach 45 to 50 degrees Celcius, where people cannot comfortably walk in the streets.

“Dubai is situated in a desert climate, and cannot be compared to Cape Town, but the experience of living there gives some insight into what it takes to live in extreme conditions.”

Dr Winter spoke about the challenge of capturing and using stormwater as a water source.
“In a natural environment, rain runs off the land surface and filters into the ground where it replenishes groundwater. The urban landscape is often impermeable, and stormwater systems remove water from urban areas quickly to avoid flooding.

“It’s an underutilised resource but more attention needs to be given to storing this water and draining it into the aquifers for later use during the summer to replenish the groundwater. A lot more attention needs to be given to how this water could be managed with the risk to the aquifers, ecological systems and human health,” said Dr Winter.

He said the crisis has also taught us a lot about managing household grey water. Some are using this water to irrigate gardens or to flush toilets, but there is not a lot of information about the long-term benefits and risks of using this water.

South Africa has no national law on control of grey water. “It’s difficult to write the guidelines and manage the greywater systems because of unknown risks such as backflow into municipal infrastructure or the spread of contaminated water beyond the boundaries of a dwelling.

Pathogens can spread and in extreme cases, in southern Africa where cholera outbreaks occur, cross contamination of contaminated water is serious.

He said it is understandable why municipalities are reluctant to develop policies on grey water management.

Professor Garcia-Chevesich, who is currently working on a Netflix documentary titled WaterWise, how not to drain a country, part of which will be filmed in South Africa, said people living in Arizona, which is semi-desert and a city 100 times bigger than Cape Town, use treated water and native plants.

They do not waste a drop and yet still have golf courses, swimming pools and gardens.

The conference organiser, NPO Save our Schools’ executive director Shelley Humphreys of Vredehoek, said the keynote speaker at the
W12 conference next year will be former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

She said the main objective of the conference is to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and the role of cities and citizens in finding solutions for resilience in a water-scarce world.