Man-induced global warming is having serious and in places fatal consequences for Sub-Saharan Africa. Millions in East Africa are now facing starvation due to the drought gripping the region. Southern African states will be in the frontlines, among the first to feel the devastating effects climate change will cause around the globe. And at the tip of Africa, a city of four million is clinging on with little more than prayers for rain.
While most of the rest of South Africa is enjoying a respite thanks to good rains in the north, the Western Cape remains in the torpor of a seemingly endless dry summer. Autumn has almost past and temperatures are still in the 20ºC, even hitting 30ºC some days. The joy of cloudless skies is wearing thin. What had steadily dried out in the summer is now being scorched to death.
Cape Town used to be described as being blessed with a Mediterranean climate, and Jo’burgers would routinely deride it for its lengthy, cold, wet winters and grey skies. But the cold front system from the southern Atlantic that would sweep in bringing Cape Town days on end of steady rainfall can no longer be relied upon.
Empirical evidence already shows that climate change is having a measurable and detrimental effect on the Cape’s treasured fynbos and this will have negative consequences for water catchment. The risk of catastrophic fires has also increased on the peninsula.
The poor will be affected in many ways – food security, environmental degradation and unemployment. The price of staple foods has already risen sharply; the impact on local agriculture will see job losses this season; in time, the fisheries will also be affected by climate change.
As scientists have long predicted for the world, Cape Town’s weather is going to become erratic, chaotic, and extreme, driven by climactic events rather than predictable systems. This is a massive challenge for a city that gets almost 100% of its water from surface sources – rivers and rainfall. When the taps run dry, it is not possible to truck in water for four million people.
At the time of writing, Cape Town’s combined dams were below 21%, surpassing the all-time record low of April 2005 when dams were at 26%. Add to this, a population that has grown rapidly and significantly in the past decade and a million thirsty foreign visitors with little stake in water conservation. One hopes hotels are making the severity of the crisis clear to their guests.
Although the city overall is impressive in its water management, with hindsight it is clear authorities should have implemented much more severe water restrictions a year ago instead of hoping for rain.
There are now high level water restrictions in place for domestic households, but to preserve the Western Cape’s fragile economy, business clients have been more or less let off the hook.
As with any critical resource when it becomes scarce, its distribution and use quickly shows up the fault lines and inequalities in society. 70% of the city’s water is residential consumption; 55% is consumed by people in houses. Informal settlements compose about 25% of city households (140,000 households), representing half a million people, but account for only 4.7% of water consumption. Shack dwellers depend on public taps and fetch and carry water in buckets.
Currently, there are about 220,000 “indigent households” that receive a water allocation of 6,000 litres per month. These allowances are strictly enforced. Not so if one has money and can pay one’s way, in which case, apart from being caught for truly excessive usage, it is up to spying neighbours or the private conscience of individuals to finally get the plumber in to fix that dripping tap and not to water their lawns, wash their cars, and hose down their paving.
Depending on how much rain falls this winter, this policy should be revisited. Human nature being what it is, if rationing of water is required (and the argument that this should already be the case is persuasive given the critical state of the dam levels), it should be monitored and enforced with equal rigidity on all households.
Consumption figures suggest that many in the middle classes have responded responsibly. For the first time in their lives they are becoming accustomed to standing in buckets when they shower and carrying grey water to their gardens, while they watch their swimming pools rapidly turn into frog ponds as the water level drops below the filtration intake. A modest suburban swimming pool holds enough water for a year for one indigent household, probably two if you include backwashing and topping up because of evaporation.
If the rains are disappointing, many people in the wealthier parts of Cape Town may soon find out what life has been like for the tens of thousands of their fellow citizens who have because of poverty spent their entire lives living under even worse water restrictions than the current ones, able only to access less than 100 litres a day per person (the City’s current entreaty to citizens), and having their water automatically cut off by municipal water-management devices when they exceed their free limit.
In such a deeply unequal city, perhaps water, more than disparities in income, will allow Capetonians to reflect on their personal consumption and needs, and support a more empathetic and egalitarian distribution of resources. It is time for the Mother City to see its reflection in the water crisis.