Running dry

The four million people in Cape Town may soon have to line up to get their daily 25 litre ration of water as one of the most affluent cities in South Africa prepares for its water supply to be turned off on 1 June. Day zero was pushed back from April after farmers from Groenland Water Users’ Association made 10bn litres of water available to Cape Town residents.

Record drought and population growth have sparked one of the world’s most dramatic urban water crises, but it could become a more regular occurrence. Other cities around the world are also facing shortages of water. In Mexico City, residents in certain parts of the vast city only have running water part of the day and one in five only have water a few hours a week. In Jakarta, the city is sinking faster than seas are rising as residents use groundwater. And in Australia, Perth has long faced water shortages.

According to some academics, the Africa’s political institutions’ inability to keep up has made the situation dangerous. Both the ruling African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance, which runs the city, have made missteps. Firstly, officials believed the drought would be short-term and disregarded climate change as a factor. Meanwhile, population growth in the city means demand for water is only increasing.  Currently, four new desalination plants are under construction, new water wells are being drilled and building of a plant to reuse effluent underway. And while these projects are more than half complete, the public is still surprised by how dramatically the situation has escalated.

Water management export Dr Clive Lipchin is uniquely placed to discuss the issues. South Africa born and raised, Lipchin is director of Israel-based Arava Institute’s Centre for Transboundary Water Management. According to Lipchin, water is an “infinite source” – it just doesn’t rain in the right place at the right time. While we want to see water as a basic human right, according to Lipchin it needs to be managed as a stock or flux and acknowledge the costs associated with treating, storing and pumping it. It’s no longer good enough to rely on natural water.

The collapse of Israel’s water stocks in the mid-1990s was a turning point and today, 70 to 80% of the country’s water is sourced from the sea and treated through desalination plants. Water most be recovered for waste, and groundwater is a valuable resource, says Lipchin but you have to pay it back with interest and recharge the “bank” or you can use the facility. The key is to reframe the issue and take it from crisis to management.

In finding a solution for Cape Town and other urban and regional communities facing water shortages now and in the future – politics will play a role. All users – including food producers –  will face greater accountability for the use as every drop of water is valued.