Conservation Over Conflict: A Cape Town Crisis

On June 4th Cape Town will run out of water. The city will shut off its taps, and Cape Town’s 4 million residents will be required to live off of just 6.6 gallons of water a day. For comparison, the average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water every day. Residents will collect their meager ration of water from 200 police-enforced collection points spread across the city. Although this may sound like something straight out of a dystopian novel, this hazardous phenomenon is the result of over three years of drought.

According to research by Piotr Wolski for the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, the city only experiences drought at this intensity every 1851 years–a rarity largely attributed to incredibly low rainfall rates in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The chances of the drought persisting through 2017 were remarkably low, yet it persisted.

Cape Town’s rapid population growth, 2.5% annually, has exacerbated the problem. For reference, New Delhi–the fastest growing city in Indiagrows at 2.4% per year. This rare drought and population boom combined largely explain South Africa’s lack of preparation for a crisis this size.  

When water is recognized as a scarce resource, conflict ensues. Water politics have sourced years of conflict over the Jordan River Basin in the arid Middle East. In South Asia, the Prime Minister of India’s recent order to restart construction of a dam on the Indus River has heightened tension with Pakistan. Countries in Eastern Africa have faced decades-long disputes over water rights in the Nile. All are highly dependent on the Nile for trade, transport, and agriculture. Water’s necessity makes it a valuable commodityone worth fighting for in many cases.

It would be easy to assume that Cape Town has plunged into chaos, that mass panic and greed prevail as resources become increasingly scarce. However, it seems Capetonians have focused their efforts on conservation, not conflict. South Africa may be a scarcity success story.

A well-developed city in a developing country, Cape Town is well-known for its environmental efforts, and in 2008 was voted one of the Top 10 most sustainable cities in the world by Ethisphere Institute. It is the most biodiverse urban area in the world. Just three years ago, Cape Town was also awarded the prestigious C40 Cities Award for its “water conservation and demand management.” In 2017, the city’s Sanlam marathon was given the AIMS Green Award for their compliance with environmentally friendly waste methods.

Despite the improbable, January 2018 saw Cape Town reservoir and dam levels drop below 30% of their normal capacity. Although Cape Town was unable to prepare for such an unlikely crisis, officials have implemented many conservation measures. At the beginning of this year, the city implemented Level 6 water restrictions. These restrictions criminalize watering gardens, filling pools, and washing cars and mandate a daily water allowance of 23 gallons per person per day. In February, this amount dropped to 13.2 gallons a day. In preparation for “Day Zero,” residents have been asked to avoid flushing toilets, to take 2-minute showers, and wear clothes multiple times before washing. Flushing a toilet six times or showering for 4 minutes would exceed this daily limit.

Yet the story in Cape Town is overwhelmingly one of hope. According to Raymond Joseph, a journalist living in the city, many citizens are valiantly trying to reduce their water usage. Local government has increased conservation measures, slapping residents who are maintaining high usage rates with fines, and even warning of jail time if they continue their wasteful ways. Government officials have gone door to door installing management devices at high-usage homes, and–to make sure the message really sinks inhave released a City Water Map, which published names of the top 100 water-using streets and shows households’ monthly water usage. This both rewards households that are complying with regulations and places social pressure on those that are not. These local efforts have prolonged the coming of Day Zero.

Outside contributions have bolstered these efforts, creating hope and providing life-saving resources. A choir of nearly 8,000 British children sang “Africa,” for Cape Town in a viral post. A fundraiser organized over popular messaging app WhatsApp has also gone viral, with water donations pouring into over seventy drop-off locations all over South Africa. Farmers are transporting contributed water for free, and many N.G.O.s have started organizing additional transport. Just this week, farmers from a neighboring valley donated 10 billion liters of water from their privately-owned damsa generous move that may come at their expense next planting season. These contributions, along with some rain over the weekend, pushed Day Zero from mid-May to its current date in early June.        

In the midst of a national disaster, Cape Town’s crisis is perhaps a success story. If efforts continue to push Day Zero back, Cape Town may hit the rainy season before the day ever comes. As water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, the world can look to Cape Town as a testament that mutual success comes through cooperation, not conflict.

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Sarah Austin

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