Day Zero is not just South Africa’s problem


Picture of Hiroyuki Hino
Hiroyuki Hino

Visiting Professor in the Poverty and Inequality Initiative at the University of Cape Town

Picture of Martine Visser
Martine Visser

Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town

The drought in the city of Cape Town in South Africa is entering its fourth consecutive year. Touted to be the worst the city has experienced in four centuries, it is reasonable to ask whether this phenomenon is also likely to repeat itself. With climate uncertainty becoming an ever-increasing reality around the world, Cape Town will not be the only city to ask this question.

The message from Cape Town’s struggle with water and other related developments in arid Africa is clear: the demand for water in large parts of the continent is unmet, far exceeding its supply, even if the potential for its augmentation from conventional sources is accounted for. And this demand-supply gap is only going to widen in the coming decades: with climate change, periods of drought will be increasingly severe and they will occur with shorter intervals. To respond to the crisis, we must create a new normal – a new way of life – that is resilient to water crises.

But what actions can a city, precariously close to running out of water, take?

Cape Town embarked on interventions to reduce the demand for water already in December 2015, when it introduced a media campaign aimed at raising awareness about the drought. Although it was followed by tariff increases and water restrictions since January 2016, a large proportion of the public was still rather ignorant about the severity of the situation as late as the middle of 2017, and in denial about the possibility that the city might run out of water. Citizens of Cape Town did not respond to the crisis as quickly and forthrightly as one might have expected, at least partly due to lack of communication and politicians’ concerns about upsetting voters.

The demand for water in large parts of the continent is unmet, far exceeding its supply

The city’s ability to manage the then-mounting water crisis was also constrained by a financially defunct model of service delivery: like many other municipalities, Cape Town has been stuck in a revenue model with increasing block tariffs, designed to cross-subsidise poor households while keeping tariffs low enough to make rich households blindly pay their bills while still guzzling water.

By the end of 2017, Cape Town had changed its approach to public communications on the crisis, and in January 2018, the Mayor of the city announced that unless every inhabitant reduced water consumption to a maximum of 50 litres per day, ‘Day Zero’ ‒ a moment when nearly all water taps would be completely turned off ‒ would come in just a couple of months. This dramatic announcement, together with transparent and readily available information, was a turning point: by February 2018, 73% of households were using less than 10.5 kl of water per month and a further 37% were using less than 6 kl.

As Cape Town’s example demonstrates, behavioural change is a powerful tool – particularly when temporary lifestyle changes and habit formation results in a permanent shift in the use of natural resources. But changing habits alone is not enough. We also need a comprehensive strategy that enables cities and regions become water resilient.

This strategy should include five elements:

First, the on-going population explosion in Africa needs to be brought under control; secondly, it is crucial to slow down the rapid urbanisation in Africa, as the water infrastructure in major cities is already pushed to its limits; thirdly, water should be priced so that it reflects its scarcity value, while provisions will still need to be made to meet the needs of the poorest segment of society; fourthly, sharing sub-regional and underutilised water resources must be considered; and finally, extraordinary large sums of money should be mobilised to protect ecosystems that contribute to water quantity and quality. Money should also be allocated to comprehensive recycling and desalination of waste water and the extraction of huge deep underground aquifers present in Africa’s arid belt.

The African water crisis is also an opportunity for European businesses

And the struggle with water does not limit itself just to Africa. For Europe, it is an obligation, as well as in its self-interest, to substantially contribute to these efforts. Climate change – aggravating the water crisis in Africa and elsewhere – is a challenge shared by us all. Access to water is a basic human right ‒ a universal value which Europe, like other world regions, adheres to. The lack of water is a fundamental cause of poverty in Africa, and it is mainly poverty that drives migration into Europe.

But the African water crisis is also an opportunity for European businesses. The massive financing needs discussed above could only be met if the private sector participates and absorbs most of it. European companies have the necessary technologies and financial resources as well as know-how to undertake recycling of waste water, desalination, the development of deep aquifers, and other water infrastructure.

The OECD should also allow its member countries to subsidise water infrastructure projects in Africa, for example through concessional loans to private companies under their jurisdiction. This would undoubtedly be justifiable given the crucial role water plays in homes, societies and world regions ‒ an undeniable human right.

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