South Africa: Water Scarcity Is the New Normal in the Face of Climate Change

Cape Town may have dodged Day Zero, but water scarcity will become the "new normal" and there is no way Capetonians can go back to using water as they did in the past, say scientists from UCT.

What the City of Cape Town needs to do now in the breather after the water crisis is not only look for new water sources, but to look at making the governance of water inclusive, and bring together Capetonians from all walks of life to get their input and perspectives on how decisions about water were made.

Johan Enqvist and Gina Ziervogel of UCT's African Climate and Development Initiative said in a paper published in the journal Wires Water that climate change projections pointed to a hotter future for Cape Town. It was also likely to be considerably drier.

"Cape Town dodged Day Zero, but water scarcity is a 'new normal' that means the city cannot return to business as usual... Moving forward, it will need new, proactive strategies," they said.

Cape Town's water crisis was triggered by a three-year drought that left dams with just 10% usable water. But through a joint effort by the government, residents and businesses, water consumption dropped massively, and household taps remained open until the 2018 winter rains replenished dams, they said.

Governance crisis

But a water crisis was not only about not enough water. It was also often about a "governance crisis", where institutions had failed to build resilience and adapt to changing conditions.

Speaking to News24, Ziervogel said in times when water was plentiful, no one really paid attention to water governance.

"It is with things like severe drought, when water supplies are scarce, that water governance is thrown into the light."

Ziervogel said during the Cape Town drought, trust had been missing. This was partly fuelled by widespread government corruption at a national level.

"Poor communication and a lack of trust contributed to a near-panic situation at the threat of Day Zero as dams almost ran dry in the first half of 2018."

If the City of Cape Town were to become more resilient against water scarcity in the future, it needed to engage with a wide spectrum of Capetonians early on, to build partnerships, to build trust and "to really hear their perspectives".

"This helps everyone understand the complexity of water governance. The City would need to engage with business, big and small, NGOs, CBOs, academics, researchers and communities. It is a really tricky thing, this focus on how to bring in new skills to enable broad participation," Ziervogel said.

Positive contributions

She and Enqvist wrote that ensuring an inclusive approach was perhaps the biggest challenge in Cape Town's water governance.

"This learning how to nurture and draw on the positive contributions of bottom-up initiative is a critical challenge for the city's drought resilience... Platforms and processes for information sharing, dialogue and building trust need to be set up well in advance of serious crises, not during them," the scientists said.

They said the often-mutual mistrust between residents and City authorities, especially in light of the long history of apartheid's intentional neglect of coloured and black Capetonians, was a tremendous obstacle to overcome.

"For Cape Town, a key function ought to be creating a system where all Capetonians are recognised as legitimate stakeholders with water rights as well as responsibilities.

"Determining what these are, and to what extent they should differ between different populations depending on income, historical disadvantages or other grievances, is likely to be a long, challenging process," the scientists wrote.

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Source: News24

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