Response to an interview request 16 Feb 2018

I wrote this for a journalist a while ago. I don’t have time to make it pretty right now, but wanted this out there for a stressful presentation in a  short while. 🙂

Marcel Hartmann, science reporter for Zero Hora

Bernelle Verster, Future Water institute, University of Cape Town 16 Feb 2018

  • What are the reasons for the water shortage in Cape Town? Global warming? Population growth? Lack of environmental politics? I’d like to explain each one of them to our Brazilian readers.

The basic reason is a prolonged extreme drought – very low rainfall.

This drought is in the context of increasing population into the Western Cape, the population has doubled in the last 30 years which has increased water demand to almost equal water supply even during good rainfall years. In addition our population’s overall wealth has been increasing since the advent of democracy, and increasing wealth inevitably leads to higher water consumption.

A changing climate is leading to more extreme weather events – in the bigger picture the Western Cape is getting drier, and when it rains it is more likely to flood.

We do have reasonably good environmental politics but this is also in the face of conflicting political and budgetary demands.

  • Why couldn’t the government prevent this crisis? Cape Town is known for its good water policies…

The government has long-term plans in place that is being implemented. The drought came earlier than the completion of the augmentation measures.

Slide 8 of this presentation shows the extra water supply visually:
The models we have available were not able to predict the extent of the drought. The water policies were able to cope with severe droughts, but this was worse that what they realistically could prepare for. Once the city knew they needed to take action, the inequalities in this country counted against us:

We are one of the most unequal cities in the world. Our middle and upper classes were wasteful water users and not willing to save water until the situation became truly dire. We have an average water use of 235 L per person per day in South Africa – a country whose annual average rainfall (490mm) is half the world average. The average daily water usage per capita in the world is 173 L.

(Sourced from )

At the same time, the rest of the population need to have services delivered – housing, roads, health and education, to improve their quality of life, their ability to contribute economically and build the overall resilience of the region.  Supplying more water had to compete with these needs, while people could save water but didn’t.

3)      Do you believe that the current measures imposed by the city of Cape Town are a good solution?

Yes. The demand reduction measures which include an increased tariff, and the supply augmentation measures are the best the City of Cape Town can do in the current complex mix of challenges and budgetary constraints they face.

The City could have done better with overall political engagement, governance structures, and overall communication – the City could have communicated earlier and their strategy could have been more people-centric. This is a common problem for bureaucracies who manage risk through ‘command and control’ and will have to change with a changing climate, where we cannot predict the best route of action anymore. Resilient cities have engaging communication with the people living and working in the city.

More about that here:

  • Cape Town is the first global city with a real chance of running out of water. May this happen to other cities around the world? Which ones? Why?

Yes.  The rest of South Africa is also in trouble. This is also a global problem that will get worse. We have moved so far out of our buffer zones, that we have very little room to find alternate solutions effectively. We’ve painted ourselves in a corner.

More info:
Top 10 megacities facing a water crisis
Cities ranked by seriousness of water crisis. Bars show population in millions
1 Chengdu, China
2 Lagos, Nigeria
3 Seoul, South Korea
4 Paris, France
5 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
6 Dhaka, Bangladesh
7 Mumbai, India
8 Sao Paulo, Brazil
9 Chennai, India
10 Shenzhen, China

  • São Paulo and Brasilia (Brazil’s capital) have already faced water cuts – not as Cape Town though. What would you say to politics and mostly to people who live in big cities and may face the same problem that people of Cape Town is dealing right now?

Learn from this and build resilient cities. Support and incentivize demand-side interventions by businesses and individuals. Change the income models to not rely on income from services where a decreasing demand (and hence revenue) is contradictory to improved resilience. Invest in green infrastructure – that is not just ‘trees and parks’; it could be engineered, concrete solutions. Green infrastructure is working with natural functions to allow cities and the people with them to work with nature. Green infrastructure appreciates over time, it increases in value and utility, and also increases nearby property values and investment potential. The potential higher upfront cost and possible increased maintenance is worth it. Cities need to communicate better with their constituents, and this takes time. Encourage relationships of care. Support more decentralized solutions, allowing people in their own neighbourhoods to implement solutions and take control over it. This requires a different way of monitoring risk, of creating awareness and managing people. Cities need to take more cognizance of ecosystem services, and the ecologies around cities, and take action to preserve them. We all need to learn and adapt together.

Some more info:

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