Africa: 'Day Zero' Just the Beginning for Water-Stressed Cities of the World #AfricaClimateCrisis

Four years ago Caleb Slabbert joined hundreds of protesters calling for better management of water crisis in Cape Town. They called on city leaders to remove water management devices, stop any drought levy or water tariff increase plans, and not to privatise the water supply.
13 June 2022

Cape Town — Over the last several years, major cities such as Cape Town, Sao Paulo and Barcelona have faced 'Day Zero' scenarios, characterised by the very real possibility of running out of water. As the world continues its urbanising trend, there are important lessons to be learned from these water crises: Why do they happen, what was the impact and the response? These lessons will be central to tackling future urban water-related risks and vulnerabilities especially given the uncertainties created by increased climate change and variability.

At the same time, Covid-19 has exacerbated many water-related impacts brought on by a changing climate and increasing urbanisation: water-related risks and vulnerabilities vary in relation to demographic factors such as race, class, age and gender. Similarly, densification ( a term used in urban planning and urban design to refer to the number of people inhabiting an urbanized area) in the face of inadequate service provision, including access to water and sanitation, results in inefficient responses. The coronavirus pandemic reveals how existing systems of service delivery reduce the risk of water insecurity for some but heighten it for others. However, this pandemic provides the opportunity and the incentive to build back better, ensuring a form of urban water resilience for the benefit of all.

In Towards the Blue-Green City: Building Urban Water Resilience, a diverse set of scholars reflect on the causes and consequences of Cape Town's near 'Day Zero' event and the lessons to be learned for cities around the world. The shadow of Day Zero still looms over South Africa, with the nation still battling extremities of water availability on multiple fronts.

Tackling a global water crisis

With this in mind, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), an independent Policy Research Institute within the Faculty for Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), held a webinar to celebrate the launch of Towards the Blue-Green City: Building Urban Water Resilience.

The session was chaired by Professor Mafaniso Hara from PLAAS at UWC, in South Africa. Hara introduced Professor Ernst Conradie, Head of the Department of Religion and Theology, who recalled how Professor Philip Clayton from the Institute for Ecological Civilization said that Cape Town became an international symbol of dealing with escalating water shortages. "So the observation from the Institute for Ecological Civilization was that there are many cities all around the world that are facing similar situations. In fact, also within the South African context, it may be wise and interesting for such cities to compare notes ... to discuss the way forward in addressing such escalating water shortages," Conradie added.

Conradie described how the planning for the publication of Towards the Blue-Green City: Building Urban Water Resilience was made during the early lockdown period following the Covid-19 outbreak, and what, if anything, that was learned from the Day Zero crisis and could be utilised.

"The question that we will need to explore is whether lessons of Cape Town 2015 to 2017, when we had a three year period of drought, whether these lessons have been learned and what these lessons actually are. Some of you might know that currently we are experiencing a very dry 2022. So the question is, if we have a similar cycle, which is bound to happen at some point, what are the lessons that we need to learn? And how can the experiences of the previous dry period be helpful as we plan ahead?" he said.

Professor Larry Swatuk of the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo, briefly explained how he collaborated with Conradie on the book. "I mean, I would love to do it again without Covid. But it was quite an amazing exercise," he said. Swatuk went on to say that with rising populations in major urban centres, particularly in tropical regions, Day Zero, together with climate change, provided the impetus for the book project.

Swatuk added further context by saying that the severity of water shortages without a functional means to address them leads authoritative figures to turn to prayer in desperation.

"I spent many years in Botswana, and I was at a water meeting one time where the Minister of Minerals and Water Resources, gave the speech at the opening of the annual water net meeting, but then he ended by saying at the end of the day, we pray for rain. And I thought to myself this is absolutely an inadequate management and strategy to pray. Right. I've nothing against prayer. Prayer is very useful. But in terms of managing your water resources, we have to do a lot more than just pray for rain."

Citing a list of several cities, Swatuk said that flooding and ageing infrastructure are a common theme and that collaboration on solving these problems would be ideal. "And then and so our challenge was to write around the challenges through these entry points, and then to try to come together and see what we can do as a collective and is there common ground? And yes, there is common ground."

The need for water in the face of drought

Jenny Day, from the Institute for Water Studies at UWC. "So the section that I was dealing with was water and the natural environment. I am a freshwater ecologist. And one of the things that bothered me greatly during the drought was how difficult it was for water managers to be able to balance the requirements for water for humans against the damage to the natural environment that will occur as a result of the drought."

Day said that Cape Town was used as a case study because of its rich biodiversity. However, the city faces a dire future based on current climate trends, as Day explained: "By 2050, the rainfall in the Western Cape is likely to have decreased by about 30% from current levels, and Cape Town will essentially be a perpetually water-stressed city. At the same time, the population of Cape Town is still increasing somewhat less rapidly than it has been; there's going to be more people wanting more water, although less is going to be available."

Day summarised by emphasising that future preparations need to be made to prepare Cape Town for the effects of climate change. "When we talk about the long term, we're not just talking about the next five-year plan, we actually need to be talking about the next 50 years. Because the ways in which drought is going to hit different cities are going to increase over time, at least for the next 50 years. And that will be if there's planet managers to reduce the rate of climate change. And to get in with regard to planning, there needs to be proper environmental impact assessments, and independent auditing of the proposals made, so that the people who make the final decisions are held accountable by independent auditors."

Ensuring better water management

Jessica Fell and Kirsty Carden presented a snapshot of the chapter they co-authored, focusing on a renewed technical agenda for integrated urban water management. Fell, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town, said: "Water security is not simply a state of adequate water, but rather a relationship that describes how individuals, households and communities navigate and transform under social relations, to access the water that they need, and also in ways that support the sustained development of human capabilities and human wellbeing, the full scope."

Fell said the best way to present their chapter would be by presenting several key lessons. "So, the first one was to create water-sensitive and resilient cities that include concepts like using the city as a catchment, so drawing on wastewater, grey or stormwater within the city, managing water quality, enhancing livability through the way water is provided, protecting ecosystems and then very importantly, adapting to climate change … Our second lesson was to practice integrated water planning and management to ensure sustainable and equitable water access … The third lesson or principle was to build water smart cities that are connected with real time relevant data information that's shared widely in different mediums and different forms …  And our last and final lesson was to ensure a collaborative and supportive governance environment to unlock synergies."

Balancing economics and sustainability in water management

Charon Büchner-Marais, the Chief Executive Officer of the Collaborative Governance Network for Water Security at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, explained that her chapter focused on the economics of water, specifically the values and governance perspectives.

She called for a greater emphasis on sustainable approaches to water management, particularly more focused efforts rather than a fractured approach. "Towards the end of our chapter, we look at future water systems, how to transform our economics and new ways to fund and finance water systems. There is a lot of innovation in financing green bonds, circular economy concepts, investment in nature-based solutions, blended finance, crowdfunding - there really is no excuse why we can't pull together, pool our resources together with U.S.$300,000 or a million rands and achieve much more than little pots of money elsewhere in silence," she said.

"We need a robust, equitable and inclusive water governance system. Businesses are willing to play their part and we see that, and we have a local case study that proves it," Büchner-Marais concluded.

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