Day zero: what have we learnt?

The persistent drought in the Western Cape since 2015 has led to continuous water shortages and restrictions. The City of Cape Town, whose municipal water supply is largely dependent on surface water and run-off, declared that once dam storage levels reached a certain point, the city would cut off the main water supply – the ever looming ‘day zero’. While ‘day zero’ has been pushed back several times, the crisis has led to a number of water resource management measures that have helped reduce water demand. Water consumption has decreased by approximately 57% to 519 million litres a day in the last three years with the aim to decrease consumption further to 450 million litres per day.[1]
Cape Town may potentially be the first major city in the world to run out of water, but water scarcity and water insecurity are experienced across South Africa and globally. Water restrictions have are currently in place in other major South African cities including Johannesburg, Durban and Nelson Mandela Metropolitans. Cape Town incrementally implemented water restrictions as water supplies dwindled to a Level 6B, which restricted water usage to 50 litres per person per day.[2] Practical measures which the city took included, reducing water pressure, fixing and preventing water wastage through leaks, increasing water tariffs and installing water management devices at residential homes with continued higher water usage.[2,3,4] Given the seriousness of the water crisis, the city temporarily cut water supply to homes who used more than 350 litres per day and implemented a comprehensive media campaign reinforcing dire implications of day zero. While many of the measures put in place may not be sustainable in the long-term, for example limiting consumption of water to 50 litres per person per day, some measures however have highlighted some of the most effective ways to create more sustainable water usage.
Water lost through physical leaks (real water losses) is estimated to be approximately 10% of total municipal water use in South Africa, or 25.4% of non-revenue water. Non-revenue water is water that is lost through physical leaks or authorized consumption that is not billed. A study conducted by the Department of Waste and Sanitation showed on average non-revenue water losses for municipal categories per annum were 34.3% for metropolitans, 30.5 to 41.3% for mid-sized municipalities and 72.5% for small (B4) municipalities.[5]
Water is still considered to be under-priced and cheap in comparison to other goods and services, particularly electricity. Water systems are complex and require a certain amount of maintenance and technical skills to operate efficiently and effectively. According to Palmer et al. (2017), most municipalities are struggling to provide for rapidly increasing populations [6]. Despite being under-priced, increasing water tariffs, particularly for wealthier households with high water usage, was deemed to provide an incentive for households to reduce their water usage. It was reported in Cape Town that increased tariffs to higher water users contributed to the reduction in consumption from households using over 20000 litres of water per month from 100000 to 20000 litres from the period December 2016 to December 2017 [6].
The resilience of cities to unanticipated climate changes is imperative.[2,8] Diversifying water resources from predominately surface water is a way by which cities can increase their resilience. Examples include making more effective use of groundwater, storm water, reused water and treated effluent [4]. Furthermore monitoring, measuring and making information available to the public creates awareness. Cape Town residences were kept continuously informed through publicly available dashboards which provide information on water consumption and dam storage levels [3]. These platforms, coupled with the restrictions kept Cape Town residents informed and more conscious of their water usage. Despite being a water scarce country, the average metropolitan residential water use in South African is 195 litres per day. This is 55 litres higher than the average figure for cities globally. It is clear that water being a scarce resource has not translated into low levels of water consumption across other parts of South Africa [6], which is not surprising given that it is under-priced. How many South African citizens are aware of the water situation in their areas or know what their daily water consumption is? Given that South Africa is the one of the driest countries in the world, it may be useful to have these platforms available to consumers and create a higher awareness and consciousness surrounding water use.
It is important that a positive cultural change towards water usage occurs amongst South Africans, particularly affluent high users in urban areas. Increased awareness prompts and encourages companies and communities to research and invest in alternative, efficient solutions and reinforces a water saving culture. Given South Africa’s currently backlog in access to basic water and sanitation services, increasing populations and vulnerability to climate change, cities need to collectively prepare to avoid the development of a water crisis like that experienced in the Western Cape. Failure to implement preventative measures will lead to economic, social, financial, health, safety and environmental costs as it did in Cape Town. Therefore, it is important for other cities to put in place precautionary measures and plan appropriately before a crisis point is reached.

1 Schwartz, A., 2018. The City of Cape Town denounces iceberg solution to water crisis. [Online]
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2  BIBLIOGRAPHY Blom, N., 2018. Preparing for Drought Lessons from Cape Town Water Shortage Crisis. [Online]
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3 Jones, A., 2018. How Cape Town more than halved its water usage. [Online]
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4 Winter, K., 2018. Cape Town’s water crisis: Five key lessons other cities can learn. [Online]
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5 DWS, 2016. Status Report on Water Losses within Eight Large Water Supply Systems, Pretoria: DWS.

6 Palmer, I., Moodley, N. M. & Parnell, S., 2017. Building a Capable State. Cape Town: UCT Press.

7 City of Cape Town, 2018. Water Outlook 2018 Report Revison 25 , Cape Town: DWS City of Cape Town.

8 Fallon, A., 2018. A perfect storm: The hydropolitics of Cape Town’s water crisis. [Online]
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