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Revealed: Four Vital Lessons African Cities Should Learn From Cape Town’s Water Crisis 

The South African city of Cape Town may at the end of April become the first major city in the world to run out of water. The city has been through severe droughts for the past three years.  Many have already blamed this on the rise in population growth and the alleged failure of the local government to tackle the problem.

Cape Town residents queue for water


Scientists are now saying that what is happening in Cape Town may soon happen all over the world. Recent research suggests that even if the international community manages to keep global temperatures from rising more than the Paris Agreement’s goal of 2° C (3.6° F), the changes already in place will leave at least a quarter of the world’s land more arid than it already is.

So what lessons can other African countries draw from what is happening in Cape Town, and how can other cities prevent themselves from suffering a similar fate?

Install climate models

These are one of the best tools water management officials and scientists have in planning for extreme weather events. Climate models are basically computer programmes that are able to simulate the future conditions of a particular part of the world. These computer simulations incorporate both theory and direct observations of the past and present to enable them project climate into the future. At the height of the crisis in Cape Town, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said South African weather services complained that their models do not work anymore in an era of climate change. This is rather unfortunate and points to the fact that all and sundry must pay close attention to the current global warming trend which is basically caused by human expansion of the greenhouse effect.

Conserve water


Nearly four million people in Cape Town are being asked to limit their water usage to 87 litres a day, but from February 1 this will be further restricted to 50 litres, or the equivalent of four toilet flushes. As the city struggles to fully run out of water, the basic lesson other cities can learn from this is to save water.

There should be a behavioural change so that people can conserve water, before, during, and after a crisis. Flushing toilets unnecessarily, having long showers and using a lot of water during laundry – which are the usual practices for people in cities – should be checked. Cities should also reduce indoor water use through more efficient appliances and technologies.

Drought-tolerant landscape design and improved irrigation technologies should also not be overlooked. Recycling and reuse of water should be encouraged. And all of these should be spearheaded by the government and local authorities.

Update water system

The current water crisis in Cape Town is showing the importance of maintaining an updated water system, even when the reality of climate change is not that pressing, says Otto and Wolski, a company that will begin a project examining the factors that contributed to the three-year dearth of rainfall in the Western Cape region.

The region in 2003 suffered a drought that was less severe. The city at the time implemented a plan of action to prevent leaks and water losses. This proved successful as the city for 15 years did not experience any increase in water demand despite its increased population growth.

Wolski said the city’s plans to update its water system were “just sort of on the slow burner all the time,” as there was no incentive to do so. And this is what other cities in Africa must avoid.

Always be prepared for drought

Local governments should be prepared to handle extreme weather conditions. David Olivier, a postdoctoral research fellow at Global Change Institute, said that in 2015 the city of Cape Town was allocated 60 per cent of the Western Cape’s water supply system with almost all the rest going to agriculture and livestock. But between 2015 to 2016, the drought began to take its toll on dam levels. However, the National Department of Water and Sanitation, unfortunately, did not take steps to rein-in agricultural water use.

A 2015 United Nations report into the world’s water supply said that floods and droughts “exacerbate vulnerabilities and widen social inequality”. The report further indicated that such events “disproportionately impact the poorest and the marginalised in any society”.

Therefore, governments must be readily prepared for the threat of climate change and water shortages, especially in growing, densely populated cities such as Cape Town.


Written by How Africa

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