At the 2015 C40 Cities Awards, held during the landmark COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, the City of Cape Town’s water management was recognised as the best climate adaptation project in the world among the competing cities


The programme includes raising public awareness and the promotion of water-use efficiency, the introduction of a ‘stepped’ water tariff designed to encourage water savings, free-of-charge plumbing repairs for low-income households, training of ‘community plumbers’, the promotion of alternative water sources, such as borehole water, and recycled water for irrigation, as well as a range of technical interventions to minimise water losses, such as improved asset management, pressure management schemes, pipe replacement programmes, leak detection and improved meter management.

Two years later, our dam levels are critically low and there is a very real chance that water will run out unless there are drastic interventions. This begs the question: how is it that we are now at such a high risk when the administration has done such highly lauded work to build water resilience?

The short answer is that the drought we are currently experiencing is probably the most serious in recorded history. Cities in South Africa have historically relied on captured rainfall in dams for water, mainly because it is more affordable and, therefore, allows easier access for the poor. In their planning meetings, these cities make allowances for drought based on the historical likelihood thereof.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this historical data is becoming less and less useful. Conventional wisdom says it is unwise for a city to try and build their way out of a drought (normally a discrete event) as the cost of new infrastructure could overburden the ratepayer, but how much can we buy into this thinking when we are being warned by many scientists of the possibility of radical changes in weather patterns? What if the rain the City of Cape Town has relied on previously is now a thing of the past?

In short, the time has come when we need to diversify our water supply and it is important that the planning for these projects is flexible enough to be responsive to the unpredictable climate. We need to have the capacity as individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow, no matter what kind of acute stresses and shocks we experience.

In this regard, our Council supported the creation of a Water Resilience Task Team under the leadership of the Chief Resilience Officer, which has set about augmenting the city’s response to drought, ensuring that acute water shortages are avoided in future. This includes ensuring that revenue is available to implement plans; exploratory work (such as pilot projects) is undertaken as soon as possible, environmental approvals are in place in advance and augmentation schemes can be quickly scaled up if necessary.

The city called for input from the private sector. On 19 June 2017, the city posted a Request for Ideas/Information (RFI) to the market for proposed solutions that will enable the city to temporarily establish several small, intermediate and possibly even large plants to supply potable water. These plants could use techniques such as reverse osmosis, desalination or similar technology from sea water, other surface water sources, or treated run-off. The city is looking for solutions that can produce between 100 million litres and 500 million litres of potable water per day.

It is envisaged that the first plants would be available for production as early as the end of August 2017. The city will require these plants to be operational for at least six months, to be extended if necessary. Responses to this RFI, which closed on 10 July 2017, will help guide the city in determining the appropriate sourcing strategy in relation to future initiatives, as well as provide a good overview of the latest technological developments.

The Water Resilience Task Team is also leading various other efforts that will ultimately change the city’s relationship with water. This includes various measures to promote or incentivise household and business adaptation.

While this work is underway, however, we need to redouble our efforts to conserve the water we have available. In line with the current water restrictions, the city requires all water users to use less than 87 litres of water per person per day in total, irrespective of whether they are at home, work or elsewhere. We want to encourage friends, neighbours, families and colleagues to join efforts, hold each other accountable and help each other to stay motivated to save water.

If we can collectively maintain these efforts, not only will we again position Cape Town as an industry leader in terms of water conservation but our society will be an example of sustainable living that others can follow.

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