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Ninety-second showers. That was what the owner of our Airbnb in Cape Town, South Africa last month advised us to stick to. Years of sustained drought have brought the reservoirs that feed the city below 25-percent total capacities. The experience of traveling to a major city in the midst of a water crisis was eye-opening. How can Cape Town’s water crisis help other major cities avoid Day Zero?
Level 6B water restrictions are in place in Cape Town, as of February 1, 2018. That means, Capetonians are advised to use less than 50 liters of water per day to save water. To put that in perspective, a two-minute shower, three toilet flushes, three hand washes, two tooth brushings, and your drinking water and coffee put you over 50 total liters in a day. No dishes, laundry, cooking, gardening, cleaning or pets are included in this scenario. Capetown.gov has an online calculator to help residents estimate usage.
As of March, fines were being handed out for not keeping to the 50 liter per person limit. Water hoarding is becoming an issue. Citizens diverting water from rivers or springs into storage containers could exacerbate the problem, so local officials are clamping down.
Cape Town Tourism has a “Save Like a Local” campaign running, to encourage responsible vacations. While people generally use a lot of water while on vacation, they bring a good amount of revenue to the city. Ten million people visited South Africa in 2017. They spent $35 billion dollars, which is an estimated 9 percent of the country’s GDP. The country doesn’t want to scare off that much travel business because one major city is stressed for water.
Long-term plans for Cape Town include adding more desalinization plants to make the abundant seawater from the bay drinkable. Usually, making ocean water safe to drink through reverse osmosis is a last resort. An American Membrane Technology Association report notes that to create desalinized water for 300,000 people takes the power of a jumbo jet at cruising speed. Reliance on this strategy could increase power usage by 10 percent overall for homes using this water supply.
Some water-saving initiatives create other problems. One restaurant we went to had paper napkins with “save water” written on them. Washing linens isn’t a great use of limited water, so they switched to paper. Single-use paper and water bottles create more trash for the landfills, which isn’t a great feedback loop. As of 2018, additional trash is the lesser of two evils to keep the taps on.
The water crisis is additionally complex due to the lingering effects of apartheid in South Africa. During apartheid, land and resources were segregated by race. A government official issued everyone a pass that classified them as white, mixed race or native. Depending on the classification, they were allowed to live in certain areas. There was never the illusion that it would be separate but equal. All of the best areas were classified as white.
The post-apartheid lines are no longer physical boundaries, but the ghost of the system was still apparent as we traveled through the area. The citizens in the wealthy suburbs haul jugs from far away or pay to drill new wells. The citizens in the low-income area hope for assistance and wait in lines to fill jugs.
The CIA World Factbook keeps track of an income inequality statistic called the Gini Index. On a scale of 0-100, zero would mean every citizen has the same income. Higher numbers indicate large gaps between the rich and poor. With one of the highest Gini scores in the world, South Africa has the worst income inequality of 154 surveyed countries. (For context, South Africa scores in the 60s, the USA scores ~45, Canada ~35, Iceland ~25.) While, today, there is more opportunity for people from poor neighborhoods to break out of poverty, there is still a lot of institutional racism scar tissue left from apartheid.
According to a Washington Post article, city officials will prioritize low-income neighborhood water supplies: “In the United States and Europe, until the early 20th century, clean water was largely supplied to homes by private wells or utilities, and poor residents often had less access to it. The result was frequent outbreaks of disease, such as cholera, in places with poor sanitation. In the early 1900s, urban planners began to consider water as a public good, distributed without regard for economic status and funded by a broad tax base. When water runs out, that system and its underlying philosophy could be weakened.”
Regardless of your politics for social assistance programs, the community as a whole does not benefit from only the wealthiest among us having access to clean water.
Modern plumbing can help break down the boundaries between the world’s haves and have-nots. Effective and leak-free distribution can maximize the water that gets to citizens. Efficient wastewater treatment can speed up the hydrological cycle and potentially replenish reservoirs faster. Affordable materials can get the water grid to areas that can’t afford alternatives.
Drought is not limited to Cape Town; it just happens to be one of the first major cities in the world to be majorly stressed. I watched a documentary called Water and Power on Netflix recently about drought issues in California. One of the storylines in the movie involves a small town named East Porterville that hit Day Zero already. Over 1,000 wells ran dry, some more than three years ago.
At the end of the documentary, the city saw some relief when the local government started hauling water to some of the citizens who were the worst hit. One of the homeowners in the documentary hadn’t been able to wash his hands in his sink in a while. The camera followed him into the house. He began to rinse his hands with water from the tap. He grabbed some soap and scrubbed his hands. He washed his hands for what seemed like ten minutes. The tap was running at full flow directly down drain the entire time he scrubbed his hands in front of his face.
I'm going to give this guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he was so excited about having running water again that he didn’t realize he was using the first opportunity he had to conserve water — having learned what life without running water is like — to utterly squander his regained resource. The lessons we can learn from Cape Town involve educating the public more than they involve acquiring more water. Giving people easy ways to understand and identify water waste may help keep the problem from happening over and over again.
My trip to Cape Town was eye-opening for a variety of reasons. There were challenges in conserving water so drastically. There were also a lot of moments when I realized how easy it is to reduce the water in certain tasks. The water crisis in Cape Town is solvable, but not without a lot of energy and the support of all citizens and visitors.
Cape Town has the unfortunate responsibility of pioneering a Day Zero scenario for a city of millions. If you live in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles, you should be bracing for water crisis impact. While the droughts might not yet be as bad as Cape Town, a Day Zero potential isn’t as far off as we would hope. Lake Mead reservoir levels don’t appear to be on a sustainable trajectory for the arid cities they support down stream. These three major U.S. cities can’t grow or sustain their populations with their current water sources forever. The question isn’t if the American Southwest will have to live with 50-liter-per-day limits on water, but when.