Cape Town nearly ran out of water. How it survived

A severe drought combined with lackadaisical planning and little in the way of contingency plans recently created a serious water emergency in Cape Town, South Africa. This city of 3 million had to take drastic measures  quickly to avert what could have been a catastrophe. The city mandated a severe limit of 13 gallons of water per day per person for all uses. This included toilets, showers, cooking, and washing clothes. It was enforced. Usage dropped sharply. Finally some rains came. Outlying areas sent water. For the moment, the severe crisis is over.

However, much still needs to be done. There are three major solutions. Drill for groundwater. Reuse waste water. Build desalination plants.

Drilling for groundwater can help, if it is done sanely. However, as witnessed in the Central Valley in California, too much drilling causes aquifer levels to drop precipitously, which creates subsidence in the earth, damaging roads, pipelines, canals, irrigation, and more. Over-pumping groundwater is not a long-term solution.

Desalination seems like it should be a really good idea. However, it is extremely expensive and requires large amounts of electricity. Many forms of electrical generation today use water for cooling. So, hmm, maybe this isn’t really a long-term fix. There’s also the problem of getting the water to inland areas.

Reusing waste water is the best approach. Las Vegas has done this for years. All waste water, including toilet water, is captured, cleaned, and flows into Lake Mead where it is used over and over again and does not count against Souther Nevada’s allotment from the Colorado River.

The good news is Cape Town survived and no doubt will be better prepared when their next water crisis hits. They are hardly alone.

The first step, as recommended by World Bank consultants, is to drill for groundwater. The city is investigating three aquifers, the first of which, the Cape Flats Aquifer, is expected to produce water for drinking by September.

The second step is to reuse waste water, a source with massive potential that other coastal cities such as Los Angeles are starting to embrace. Currently Cape Town recycles only 8 percent of its water. The rest goes into the ocean.

Third is desalination, the most expensive option per liter of water.

As always, water cannot be separated from politics, poverty, race, and economic status.

In some ways, the crisis both amplified and collapsed the economic and racial gulf between black and white South Africans, a lingering anguish of apartheid. Homeowners in upscale and largely white Constantia and Newlands were not immune to the harsh restrictions on use of city water. They took 60-second showers while standing in buckets, and let the yellow mellow. Living on 50 liters a day “raised awareness in a lot of people who ordinarily would not have any concept of how a person in an informal settlement lives,” Carden said. Those wealthy homeowners, though, also could afford to drill boreholes to keep their gardens green.

There was panic in the city, but it was not evenly distributed. In informal settlements and townships on the edge of the city, the home of poor black residents, Day Zero had little resonance for people who collect water from community wells. “As a black person, the water restrictions are not that different,” said Loyola Nyathi, a third-year student at the University of Cape Town who is from Khayelitsha, one of the most well-known townships. Others in the city noted that this was a crisis for the middle and upper classes.