Science AMA Series: Hi Reddit! We’re a journalist, water policy expert, climate scientist, and biologist. We’re talking about Cape Town’s dire drought situation, climate change, and how one of the best-managed and wealthiest cities in Africa found itself on the brink of running dry. Ask Us Anything!

Abstract

My name is Adam Welz and I’m a South Africa-based freelance journalist and contributor to Yale Environment 360 magazine, where I recently published the story, “Awaiting Day Zero: Cape Town Faces an Uncertain Water Future.” Recently, Cape Town has become infamous as the home of “Day Zero,” the day when most of the city’s taps are predicted to run dry. With its major, rain-fed supply dams dangerously low after three years of drought, most of the city’s 4 million-plus residents — some rich, many desperately poor — have been facing the prospect of lining up at emergency water distribution points to collect a daily ration of just 6.6 gallons per person. Thanks to massive reductions in water usage in recent months, Cape Town recently pushed back its Day Zero, but the region’s drought continues and the city’s water shortage issues are far from over. How did one of the best-managed and wealthiest cities in Africa find itself on the brink of a catastrophic water shortage in the first place, particularly considering climate change and water management have been firmly on the agenda of Cape Town’s leaders for years? What is the city doing to rectify the immediate situation, and at what cost? And with its population growing and the climate warming, how does Cape Town meet its future water needs?

Joining me today are water policy expert Christine Colvin, head of freshwater programs with WWF-South Africa, climate scientist Peter Johnston of the University of Cape Town, and biologist Adam West also of the University of Cape Town.

We’ll be answering your questions starting at 10 am ET — Ask Us Anything!

Thank you everyone for tuning into this dynamic discussion on Cape Town's drought and water shortage. We've received many questions during this AMA session, and tried our best to answer as many as possible. We apologize if we didn't have time to get to your submission. But, please continue this conversation! To stay updated on the latest climate change stories, you can visit our website www.e360.yale.edu or follow us on FB & Twitter (@YaleE360).

Cheers,

Adam, Christine, Peter, and Adam, & Yale Environment 360 staff.

How likely will this crisis lead to the abandonment of the city? Are there cities or countries supplying the water needed for cape town, or is it just relying on the dwindling water sources it already has used up?

Lighthazend

Hi this is Christine. At the moment we are still relying on the major dams in our bulk water system, which are only 22% full. Winter rains are expected to top up the dams again before they get critically low, but we don't know this for sure. Many businesses and households are now also using decentralised infrastructure, such as rainwater harvesting and boreholes - so they are accessing alternate sources. We are also increasing the amount of water reclaimed from treated water and introducing some new desalinated water.


How likely will this crisis lead to the abandonment of the city? Are there cities or countries supplying the water needed for cape town, or is it just relying on the dwindling water sources it already has used up?

Lighthazend

This is journalist Adam Welz: Unlikely to lead the abandonment of the city in the short term. It may damage certain important economic sectors (e.g. agriculture and tourism, which together employ huge numbers of people in and around the city) and may bring down property values. Cape Town residential property values have been rising fast in recent years in middle- to upmarket areas, fuelled by buyers from elsewhere in South Africa and internationally who are drawn by the seaside lifestyle. Property brokers who I have spoken to recently tell me that residential sales have plummeted in recent months as potential buyers wait to see what is likely to happen.


How likely will this crisis lead to the abandonment of the city? Are there cities or countries supplying the water needed for cape town, or is it just relying on the dwindling water sources it already has used up?

Lighthazend

Hi this is Peter, The city is a very resilient and efficiently run city, and the unusual situation of 3 drought years in a row is unlikely, but not impossible, to happen again soon. Cutting down the demand has been very effective so far and looking for alternative sources, as many other cities do, will make the city self sufficient again


Is there a solution that can keep Cape Town alive? Desalination? Alternate ways to get freshwater to them?

beauregrd

Hi this is Adam West. For the moment the most important solutions are demand management and getting good winter rain this year! But there are augmentation solutions that are being developed: 1) groundwater abstraction from the different aquifers around Cape Town, 2) desalination, 3) water reuse and recycling.

All of these have different lead times to develop, different economic costs and impacts on the environment. The challenge is balancing the current emergency with the longer-term needs for growing the water supply in this rapidly growing city that happens to be nestled in one of the world's most extraordinary biodiversity hotspots.


Is there a solution that can keep Cape Town alive? Desalination? Alternate ways to get freshwater to them?

beauregrd

This is journalist Adam Welz again: I think it's important to bear in mind that water infrastructure has a huge environmental impact. It's quite concerning that some of the boreholes that are being drilled are being drilled in environmentally sensitive areas and that it's not clear that the long-term impacts will be studied. I thought this was quite a good summary of some of the problems: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-03-12-dry-land-how-the-race-for-water-could-leave-us-high-and-dry-part-2/


Is there a solution that can keep Cape Town alive? Desalination? Alternate ways to get freshwater to them?

beauregrd

Hi this is Peter. One important solution is to manage our water use. Much water that is normally thrown away can be reused, or used for a purpose that does not require clean water. Others are innovative technologies such as towing icebergs to an offshore mooring, which is looking like a very exciting solution as it is not capital intensive an done iceberg can supply a third of the city's water for 6 months.


Is there a solution that can keep Cape Town alive? Desalination? Alternate ways to get freshwater to them?

beauregrd

This is journalist Adam Welz: I'd like to add that, given current laws and government policy, it's very difficult for municipal and provincial government to finance large water infrastructure that will take many years to pay back. Desalination plants and water recycling plants can be very expensive, and it's up to national government to pay for them. However, national government has very little money to pay for infrastructure and a poor credit rating, which makes things difficult.


There's been little news out of Cape Town lately.

I wonder, though, why we haven't seen an exodus out of the city. Even if Cape Town recovers this winter, what measures are in place to guard against future water shortages? Why are people staying, given the unsure futures of the aquifers and reservoirs?

brandonsmash

Running away is tricky as the whole province is short of water, and people have lives and livelihoods here, so leaving is a last resort. We have enough water - 50 litre per day per person is sufficient, but obviously not sustainable in the long term without systematic changes to our infrastructure.


There's been little news out of Cape Town lately.

I wonder, though, why we haven't seen an exodus out of the city. Even if Cape Town recovers this winter, what measures are in place to guard against future water shortages? Why are people staying, given the unsure futures of the aquifers and reservoirs?

brandonsmash

This is Adam Welz: As some ecologists have pointed out, we lose a lot of water because invasive tree species (including pines) consume a lot of water in the catchment areas of our dams. Ramping up the removal of these exotic trees could give us a lot more water. The government does have a program called Working for Water that does this, but it's slacked off a bit in recent years.


There's been little news out of Cape Town lately.

I wonder, though, why we haven't seen an exodus out of the city. Even if Cape Town recovers this winter, what measures are in place to guard against future water shortages? Why are people staying, given the unsure futures of the aquifers and reservoirs?

brandonsmash

This is Adam Welz: I think that if middle- and upper-class Capetonians have to continue to have to live on 50 liters per person per day (or less) indefinitely we'll see many of them get fed up and leave. Although I've not found it that difficult to use only 30 liters per person per day, it means carrying large amounts of graywater around and not watering your garden, for example.

Read this: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/letter-bed-cape-town-drought-day-zero


Good Morning from the U.S.,

I have two questions from an economic viewpoint.

Would you classify this dire problem as a tragedy of the commons?

Could a free market solution work to help/have helped manage water?

Thanks you

Econ_artist

This is journalist Adam Welz: I've always been a little suspicious of the term "tragedy of the commons", since it's so blunt. Commons come in many forms. I think what most people mean by this term is "tragedy of the unregulated (or unmanaged) commons".

In terms of consumption: There is not a free-for-all in terms of access to water in Cape Town; bulk water is supplied mainly by the national Department of Water & Sanitation and it's distributed by the City of Cape Town. Although there are essentially unregulated and un-metered community taps in many informal areas, these areas use only a small percentage of the water used in Cape Town. Middle- and upper-income users, who use much more of the residential water consumed in the city, are supplied by metered individual pipes and pay by volume used. The city has a so-called "stepped tariff", meaning that individual properties pay increasing amounts per unit of water used as they use more (i.e. heavy users are financially penalized).

In terms of supply: Bulk water is supplied by government, not the private sector. This is policy. Some people have argued that for-profit companies would do a good job of supplying bulk water, esp. with regard to desalination, but the track record of private water supply in South Africa is mixed, to say the least.


Thanks for joining us today!

Think UCT will be waterfront property soon as ocean levels rise and aquifer extraction sinks the city?

PHealthy

Hi this is Peter, Sea level rise is estimated at about 10cm per century but this doesn't mean we won't see a catastrophic rise if the ice sheets melt. Storm surges and SLR are already threatening coastal infrastructure, but UCT is about 50m above SL and aquifer extraction is unlikely to cause major subsidence


Thanks for joining us today!

Think UCT will be waterfront property soon as ocean levels rise and aquifer extraction sinks the city?

PHealthy


How much of the delay of Day Zero was truly attributable to people's reduction of water consumption versus all other influences (cutting off agriculture, donations of water etc)?

I4gotmyothername

This is journalist Adam Welz: It's interesting that the formula that the City of Cape Town has been using to determine Day Zero is a secret. I've been trying to see it for months. An insider recently told me that the formula has been changing as the City has been forced to learn more about its water supply system and how residents use water during this crisis. The City has reduced the pressure in water distribution networks, which slows the rate at which residents can use it, and this has been very effective in reducing consumption.


How much of the delay of Day Zero was truly attributable to people's reduction of water consumption versus all other influences (cutting off agriculture, donations of water etc)?

I4gotmyothername

Hello - this is Christine. Demand reduction in the City and in agriculture has played a significant role in delaying Day Zero. The City is now using half the volume it used more than a year ago at approx 550 megalitres per day, but this is still 100 ML/day above the target consumption level of 450 ML. The 'donation' of water from agriculture has also been very significant in coming at the right time, and a large volume, to help prevent Day Zero. So far the new augmentation schemes haven't delivered much 'new water' into the system, but volumes will gradually increase during the year as new boreholes come on line.


A professional association with which I am associated just announced a conference scheduled to be held in Cape Town in 2020. Is it a responsible idea to be soliciting tourism and increasing demand for water in a location that is at risk of shortfall ?

buddhist62

I think that if you use water sparingly while you are here, you should come. Tourism is one of the key economic sectors in Cape Town; without it tens of thousands of people would be out of work.


May I suggest bringing in prefab RO skids and connect them up for your water supply. There are companies in US that can supply them. You could be operational in 3 months with a decent engineer overseeing it.

Burneracct2018

This is Peter, the cost of these is very high, and are available here too, but are seen as an absolute last resort. Rather invest in permanent options, is the thinking here.


Are there any humanitarian projects aiming to help?

giuseppeh

This is journalist Adam Welz: Yes. Organisations including Gift of the Givers (http://www.giftofthegivers.org) have made plans, many of them involving trucking bottled water down from upcountry.

I'm not convinced that this is useful. The amount of water involved is tiny relative to what's needed, the expense and carbon footprint of trucking is huge, and the plastic pollution that results is enormous.


Are there any humanitarian projects aiming to help?

giuseppeh

Hi this is Peter Well, those who have excess water are helping out by making it available to others, but it's important to note that the taps are still running!! Water is still available to all. The amounts are reduced but there should be enough for everybody in the short term.


Are there any humanitarian projects aiming to help?

giuseppeh

Hello this is Christine. People from other parts of the country have tried to get involved by saving their own water in bottles to send down to Cape Town, but it's a bit hit and miss. At the moment people still have their basic human needs met, and plans are in place for a Day Zero scenario, so no humanitarian projects have been launched. It would benefit the City to have a wide-spread programme of plumbers fixing up the household level leaks in low-income areas. This would provide a long lasting benefit to these areas.


Will groups at different income levels be affected differently when Day Zero hits?

I've read some of the wealthier people are already paying to have their own water trucked in.

preinheimer

Hi this is Christine. Certainly wealthier households have a better coping capacity and can afford to buy or tap into more solutions 'off-mains' such as boreholes. Some people have even bought 'Water from Air' devices that do just that - produce water by dehumidifying the air. So poorer households will generally have less capital available to invest in these options. Plus, poorer households are often larger than wealthy households. In some Cape Town areas an extra house is built in the backyard, and everyone is sharing the same water. So as there is a limit per household, they can end up with less water. Large households need to let the City know that there are more than 4 people before they can access more than the 50L/ person/ day limit.


Will groups at different income levels be affected differently when Day Zero hits?

I've read some of the wealthier people are already paying to have their own water trucked in.

preinheimer

This is Adam Welz: I have noticed some wealthy people in neighborhoods near mine trucking water in, and have witnessed trucks illegally pumping non-potable water from city streams, but I'm not sure that this is a widespread phenomenon.

I have found it quite easy to reduce my and my family's water consumption by not bathing, taking short showers while standing in a large plastic basin and using this shower water to flush toilets. My wife also set up a simple system to use the washing machine's rinse water to wash the next load. We use about 30 liters per person per day.

Many wealthy people have rushed out to buy rain water tanks, leading to temporary shortages. This has been quite a good thing, overall, forcing people to think more carefully about water and making their properties more resilient to drought.


Will groups at different income levels be affected differently when Day Zero hits?

I've read some of the wealthier people are already paying to have their own water trucked in.

preinheimer

Hi this is Adam West. This crisis has brought out several positives. One of which is an increased awareness of the value of water. Many wealthier families have for the first time examined and curtailed excessive water use. The city has seen a massive drop this year in homes using greater than 20kl per month, from 100,000 in Jan 2017 to 12,300 in Feb 2018. Some of this might be switching to alternatives such as rainwater harvesting and boreholes, but also Capetonians are learning that you can do a lot with 50L per day.


Why has it even gotten to this state in the first place despite the possibility of exactly this happening being drawn attention to both the government and the populace nearly every year for the last decade or so?

What roles do the different levels of government have with regards to water management and which level effectively 'failed' for us get to such a state in the first place? (municipal, provincial, federal?)

memzak

Hi this is Peter, this is certainly a complex question! Cape Town had a very thorough and well researched plan to ensure that water supply was greater than demand, but 3 successive drought years has put huge stress on the resource. the national (federal) govt is ultimately responsible for providing the urban areas with water, but that water must be managed by the city itself. Sadly some blame games are not helping and the city has had to take matters into their own hands by reducing DEMAND to cope with the reduced supply. they are also looking at fast tracking alternative sources of water to cope with the shortage. Cape town has cut its water consumption form 1200litre pp per day to 500 in 18 months. We have learnt important lessons - one of which is we must use water more carefully in the future!


Why has it even gotten to this state in the first place despite the possibility of exactly this happening being drawn attention to both the government and the populace nearly every year for the last decade or so?

What roles do the different levels of government have with regards to water management and which level effectively 'failed' for us get to such a state in the first place? (municipal, provincial, federal?)

memzak

This is journalist Adam Welz:

This is an enormously complex question. Different people will have different answers. Here are some quick thoughts:

Politicians in South Africa have many competing priorities. The country has enormous unemployment, an AIDS crisis, etc. etc. Water infrastructure is almost always extremely expensive, and often loses out to other priorities because it's not always seen as urgent.

We've had incompetent, some say highly corrupt, politicians involved in water at the highest levels for some years now. They have delayed key water infrastructure projects, overspent on others, and have now almost bankrupted the national department of Water and Sanitation, which is responsible for bulk water supply.

Local politicians have also arguably dropped the ball on water. This may well be because they were eager to believe thoroughly unreliable seasonal rainfall forecasts which predicted a good rainy season in 2017. There is also the problem that predicting climate change-related reductions in rainfall in a way that is useful to policymakers is extremely difficult.


Why has it even gotten to this state in the first place despite the possibility of exactly this happening being drawn attention to both the government and the populace nearly every year for the last decade or so?

What roles do the different levels of government have with regards to water management and which level effectively 'failed' for us get to such a state in the first place? (municipal, provincial, federal?)

memzak

Hi this is Adam West. Peter could comment on this better, but one of the problems is predicting the rain. We have had very reliable rainfall in the region for a considerable period of time (it is one of the explanations for the high levels of biological diversity here), but this is forecast to change with global warming. And we actually have relatively poor seasonal forecasting power for this region. This makes it tricky to decide on investing in expensive infrastruture until the crisis actually hits.


Hi guys, thank you for this AMA, CT resident here.

Is it true that our water pipes have an above average water retention rate, only losing around 15% in total when pumping water from dams to residential areas?

How do they compare to other parts of South Africa and the world?

iamkiko

This is Peter the city has focused on fixing leaks as a high priority over the last 15 years and we are now equal to highly developed cities such as New York and Sydney.


How can we solve climate change?

Konradleijon

Hi this is Peter Truly a great challenge. we have 2 options - to reduce carbon emissions drastically and keep them low so that the temperature increases can be halted and maybe reversed. We need to keep increases to below 2 degrees, preferably 1.5 Celsius. If we can't do that our best chance is to adapt to the increasing temperatures and changing weather, which is expensive and almost impossible for poorer communities, so the ideal option is the first one - but the second must happen as well.


How can we solve climate change?

Konradleijon

This is Adam Welz: The first priority is to stop burning coal. South Africa is one of the world's leading coal miners, coal burners and coal exporters. Not only is all this coal driving climate change, we're destroying important water sources in areas like the Mpumalanga highveld by digging them up for massive opencast coal mines.


How can we solve climate change?

Konradleijon

Hi, Adam West here. Reduce, reuse, recycle? If I have learnt anything from this crisis, it is that I was being extremely wasteful with water in the past, for no material gain in my quality of life and that of my children. We can do so much more than we think with less than we ever thought possible. Reducing our consumption will go along way towards helping us to solve this problem.


Have for-profit companies using the same water source contributed to this crisis?

I hear a lot about companies bottling water for pennies for a thousand cubic meters locally, while municipalities watch their wells run dry.

preinheimer

This is Peter, this is not really the case in Cape Town. While there are industries that use a great deal of water, like textile and manufacturing, they also create jobs so it's a cost/benefit calculation. Where for-profit companies have suffered though is where their supply of water has been reduced - no-one gets a blanket exclusion. Bottled water has never been sourced from Cape town's water supply, but is being imported now from other areas.


Peter, have you or any other scientists done a formal (or even informal) study attempting to attribute the Cape Town drought to climate change?

aClimateScientist

Hi this is Peter yes, this has been a constant question. The long-term trend is not showing a significant decrease in Cape Town rainfall, and the variability does show decades of lower and higher rainfall. It's true that the last 15 years have been mostly lower than average and if climate change models are to be believed, there is some agreement that decreasing rainfall is likely in the next 30-50 years, but we are not confident that the current dip, if you like, is part of a long-term trend. There are some models showing a projected increase, so we have a good deal of uncertainty around this. Suffice to say that if we assume that rainfall will stay the same/normalise, then the increased temperatures that are certain, will lead to increased evaporation and dryness of the soil in summer. So droughts are certainly more likely to occur, even with the same natural variability.


Would we ever run out of water?

oceangrown93

Hello this is Christine. The chances of demand exceeding supply are very high in many parts of the world, so water scarcity is a significant risk for communities, governments and business. Check out WWF's water risk maps on www.waterriskfilter.panda.org and you can get sense of how this risk varies around the world. Beyond scarcity, we may have water which is unfit for purpose - a real problem for poorer communities who lack the infrastructure to treat water so that it is safe for domestic consumption.


Would we ever run out of water?

oceangrown93

This is journalist Adam Welz: Who is "we"?


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