The head of Cape Town’s disaster operations centre is drawing up a plan he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the frontline of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps.
“We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” says Greg Pillay. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 years in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis.”
The plan – being drawn up with the emergency services, the military, epidemiologists and other health experts – is geared towards Day Zero, the apocalyptically named point when water in the six-dam reservoir system falls to 13.5% of capacity.
At this critical level – currently forecast for 16 April – piped supply will be deemed to have failed and the city will dispatch teams of engineers to close the valves to about a million homes – 75% of the city.
“It’s going to be terrifying for many people when they turn on the tap and nothing comes out,” says Christine Colvin, freshwater manager for WWF and a member of the mayor’s advisory board.
In place of piped water, the city will establish 200 water collection points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres per person per day within 200 metres of every citizen’s home.
This will be a major burden on municipal coffers. The estimated cost of installing and running the new system for three months is 200m rand (£12m). Instead of selling water, it will be given away for free, which will mean R1.4bn in lost revenue.
“The total city budget is R40bn, so this won’t destroy us, but it will cause severe discomfort,” says the deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, who adds that he has not had a bath at home for a year. “A bigger concern is to ensure the economy doesn’t collapse. We need to keep business and jobs going … Clearly, there could be a severe impact. It depends on how long it continues.”
Neilson stresses that Day Zero can be avoided. A lowering of pipe pressure and a public information campaign to conserve water have cut the city’s daily water consumption from 1,200 million litres to 540 million litres. If this can be pushed down another 25%, the taps should stay open to the start of the rainy season in May.
But this is no guarantee. Three consecutive years of drought have made a mockery of normal seasonal patterns.
“We’re in a critical transition period where the past is no longer an accurate guide to the future,” says Colvin.
She illustrates her point with two maps. One – based on historical data – shows the water risk of Cape Town is green, meaning it is among the lowest in South Africa. The other – based on future climate projections – is almost the complete opposite, with the city located in a middle of an alarming red heat zone.
“What we didn’t know was when that future would arrive,” says Colvin. “Businesses and investors have heard the long-term projections but they haven’t heard the starting gun go off. If this drought can pull the trigger then that could be a good thing. If this is seen as a pressure test for the new normal, it will help us to adapt.”
The government has struggled to keep pace. Plans to make the city more resilient to climate change by diversifying the water supply with boreholes and desalination plants were not due to kick in until after 2020. But the climate has moved faster, bringing a drought so severe it would usually be expected only once every 384 years.
What was the biggest reservoir in the system – Theewaterskloof Dam – has mostly evaporated or been sucked dry.
One side of the lake is now a desert. Devoid of life, this is a landscape of sand dunes, cracked earth and dead trees. It takes more than 30 minutes walk under a burning sun to reach the last pool of water, which is barely wide enough to skim a stone across. In what looks like a dark failure of evolution, it is ringed by the carcasses of stranded fish.
On the other side, by the dam wall, the water is nearly 10 metres deep, but the shoreline is receding at the rate of the 1.2m a week, leaving the bed exposed to the sun. The afternoon winds once attracted sail boats; now they whip up white dust storms that envelop much of the valley.
“The change is visible by the week,” said Paul Furstenburg, restaurant manager at Theewater sports club. “When I arrived here four years ago, it was like a sea,” he says, pointing to photographs on the walls of high waves crashing up to the car park during a storm and dozens of boats sailing in regattas. Now, the shoreline is more than 100m back and one of the three small vessels left in the water is stranded on a sandbank. The club – which would normally be thronged with sailors, water-skiers, swimmers, campers and fishermen – is almost empty. The revenue has dried up too, leaving the 20 staff worried about their futures. “This has gone from a holiday resort to nothing,” says Errol Nichols, the safety officer. “It has become a desolate place.”
In Cape Town itself, the population is jittery. “We’re scared,” says Amirah Armien as she queues to fill a couple of bottles at the spring beside Newlands Brewery. “Water is life. What are we going to do without water?”
After a run on bottled water last month, supermarkets introduced limits for each customer. Hardware shops have sold out of water tanks and pool covers. Borehole drillers are now so overwhelmed with requests that there is a year-long wait. Even dehumidifiers – which are being marketed as “water from air” devices – are out of stock.
“People are freaking out,” said David Gwynne-Evans, a botanist. “You go to the shops and see people buying 20 bottles of water. It’s a ridiculous increase of disposable plastic.”
He believes Cape Town’s vineyards bear a large share of blame because they are water-intensive yet they have continued to expand during the drought. “Wine is a luxury. We shouldn’t be using water for that, yet even now new vineyards are opening.”
The crisis has exacerbated prejudice and division. One homophobic pastor blames the drought on gays and lesbians. There has also been sharp criticism of the government, and feuds between the national and provincial authorities over the handling of the crisis.
Yet – among the broader populace – efforts to avert Day Zero have been successfully ramped up.
Many hotels have removed the plugs from rooms so guests must have a shower rather than a bath. Blue droplet-shaped signs above office toilet sinks remind users “Conserve H2O. Use sparingly.” There are more signs in the cubicles, which are divided into “No 1” and “No 2” toilets to ensure maximum efficiency. Some shopping malls have turned off the taps and installed hand-sanitiser dispensers.
At an individual level, the learning curve has been steep. Civic-minded Capetonians have become accustomed to showering – or just ladling hot water – in a baby bath that collects the run-off so that it can be used in first the washing machine and then the toilet.
A major topic of conversation for Capetonians is how many litres they use and how long they can go without washing their hair or flushing.
“I’ve never talked about toilets so much,” says Fiona Kinsey, a young office worker. “Last year, we were discussing whether it was OK to wee in a public toilet and not flush. Now we are way beyond that.”
Shame is used to maintain discipline. An online water consumption map allows neighbours to check on each other’s usage. Some sports clubs have installed buzzers on their showers that embarrass people who linger under the water for more than two minutes.
There is a positive aspect to this sudden shock. Many people are happy to see a greater awareness of conservation and consumption inequality. Social activists say the rich are experiencing what life has always been like in poor townships, where many residents are used to lining up at standpipes.
“Using washing water to flush the toilet is what people in townships do all the time,” says Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa. “So is washing with buckets and scuttles. I had my first shower when I was in my 20s.”
Dee Watson, a teacher, describes the situation as a “euphoric stage” in which most people are looking out for others in a positive way.
“What’s amazing is to mix and talk in the queue with every strata of society. We all need water so it brings people together,” says Watson. “For now at least, most people are laughing and joking. But it’s scary that some people are being greedy and panic-buying.”
There have been acts of benevolence. At the start of the drought, Newlands spring – where water flows freely from underground – was a site of mud, crowds and chaos as people jostled to get at the taps and informal labourers competed to carry water for tips.
“People were getting hurt,” remembers Riyaz Rawoot, a local resident who says he spent R25,000 from his own pocket to organise the spring with the construction of multiple access points and provision of uniforms for the water carriers.
“I’m not making any money. I just want to be of service. Until now it has been fun, but it is becoming more stressful as more people come,” he says. “I’m worried about Day Zero. People are scared and they don’t trust the government, so they might panic and try to get water any way they can.”
Neighbours are already unhappy that their previously quiet street is now a hive of activity, with people carrying water containers in squeaky shopping trolleys back and forth from the spring to cars parked along the main road. “It’s a nightmare,” says one of the residents of the Cresswell House senior citizens’ community. “They come all through the night. It’s so noisy we can’t sleep.”
It is also far from clear that drought is a social leveller. Wealthy homeowners have drilled boreholes and invested in water tanks so they have an independent supply. Joggers who go out at 5am say they can hear the “phut phut” of sprinklers being used to water lawns before most people are awake. Some residents have called environmental groups to complain their neighbours are filling swimming pools.
At the other end of the income spectrum, there are worries. The government has promised that standpipes will continue to flow in informal settlements after Day Zero, but there is scepticism in the Kanini neighbourhood of the Langa township. The one pipe that serves 20 families tailed off here last Thursday without explanation. Some locals feel they are being punished because of a public outcry about the waste at a street car-washing centre at the neighbouring settlement of Joe Slovo.
“I’m worried … everyone is worried. It will be a crisis for us,” says Nowest Nmoni, who makes a living by brewing Umqombothi beer in oil drums. “If we lose water, we lose our income.”
Maintaining social programmes will also be a challenge. City officials say hospitals and prisons will run as normal because they have access to aquifers, but questions remain about 819 schools, half of which do not have boreholes. There would be sanitation risks if their toilets were unable to flush, but the authorities insist they will remain open.
“The objective is no school closures. We don’t want kids on the street compounding issues,” says deputy mayor Neilson.
When the Brazilian city of São Paulo faced drought catastrophe in 2015 the army drew up secret plans to take control of reservoirs and water supplies fearing violent unrest, but officials in Cape Town play down such security fears. Though thousands of South African Defence Force and police personnel will be deployed after Day Zero to guard water distribution centres, reservoirs and other strategic areas, they say, the number of officers at each site will be determined by risk assessments of each location’s past history of protest or gang activity.
“This isn’t going to be martial law. It will be low profile,” says JP Smith, an alderman responsible for safety and security. “There might be some trouble about people cutting queues, but I don’t foresee a big increase in crime. The bigger problem will be congestion.”
For him, it is a moot point. He believes Day Zero will be avoided. The premier of Western Cape, Helen Zille, however, believes there is a 60% chance that it will occur.
While the debate rages about what will happen, who is to blame and whether the city will be drawn together or pulled apart, Pillay and his colleagues at the disaster risk management office are obliged to prepare for the worst – something other cities may soon be obliged to do.
“We don’t want to create panic. We can avert Day Zero,” he says. “We had hoped that rainfall would replenish the dams, but it hasn’t happened. What this signalled to me what that climate change is reality. If you doubted it before, you can’t now.”
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