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From the Inside: Four changes that rewrote the Day Zero narrative

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

What happened between Day Zero being an absolute certainty in 2018 to it being pushed back to 2019, despite the absence of rain?

On 18 January 2018, Mayor Patricia de Lille, announcing the imposition of level 6B water restrictions, warned that Day Zero – when Cape Town residents would start queueing for water rations – was now virtually unavoidable. The “likely” date, she said, was 21 April.

On 7 March – 48 days later – DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that Cape Town was unlikely to reach Day Zero during 2018.

What happened between those two dates to occasion such a dramatic recovery, despite the absence of rain?

The answer is: Four things:

  • Water consumption dropped significantly, from over 600-million litres per day to around 520-million litres. This was driven by a combination of tight new restrictions; significant tariff increases; a deliberate drop in water pressure, and residents’ compliance with water-saving measures.
  • Water supply to three agricultural irrigation boards was cut entirely.
  • The farmers of the Groenland Water Users Association donated 10-billion (10,000 million) litres of water from its Elandsfontein dam to the City.
  • Augmentation began to come on stream by the targeted dates.

None of these developments was predictable, with any accuracy, back in January, when dam levels were dropping by 1.4% per week. The rate of decline of the dam levels, and the average daily water usage, were used to calculate the “Day Zero” date when dam levels were projected to reach 13.5%, and serious water rationing of 25 litres per person per day would begin.

Water saving, in particular, has been exceptionally successful in Cape Town, where usage has dropped by 60% from the daily high of 1.2-billion litres three years ago. This is a higher rate of saving than has been achieved by any city in comparable circumstances.

As a result, dams are now dropping by only 0.4% per week. On the current trend, Day Zero has been pushed back to the end of August. By that time the province will be well into the rainy season. In addition, further augmentation will have come on stream. Even a moderate amount of rain (together with continued water savings) will enable us to reach the end of 2018 without having hit Day Zero.

However, the risk remains: if this winter’s rainfall is as low as that of 2017, and if consumption starts to creep up again, Day Zero could loom large once more during the summer of 2018/19.

If this is so, why didn’t we just retain the “Day Zero” narrative that successfully raised public awareness of the seriousness of the situation?

First, we are committed to giving honest weekly updates. When circumstances change, we say so. “Day Zero” has always been a moving target because it is affected both by consumption and augmentation. This week’s projection showed that Day Zero was unlikely to arrive before the end of 2018. So we passed on the news.

This was necessary for a second reason as well: While the “Day Zero” messaging helped us achieve our water saving targets, it also had some seriously negative consequences, especially for the economy.

The idea of “Day Zero” hovering on the horizon has had a major effect on the big pillar of our economy, tourism. Visitors stay away from a city at risk of running out of water. Many also cancel their bookings. And this has a knock-on effect through the entire pipeline of tourism offerings. We simply cannot afford to lose jobs (especially as the 30,000 job losses in agriculture, due to the drought, have been unavoidable). So it was a great relief to be able to share the good news this week.

It is an enormously positive development that we can now truthfully tell the world that Cape Town is open for both business and leisure. Visitors are welcome, for many reasons, including that their presence saves jobs. They won’t experience any discomfort as a result of the drought. A short shower achieves its hygiene objectives just as effectively as a deep bath.

Tourism is all the more important given the challenges we are facing in other sectors too. Construction, another water-intensive industry, has slowed both because of the drought and threats of expropriation of land without compensation.

Across the board, this week’s news got us onto the “up-escalator” again. But the general rule still holds: for every escalator going up, there is one going down. Complacence about water use is our greatest risk.

If rainfall in 2018 remains as low as it was in 2017, we will find ourselves in a similar crisis at the start of 2019, even if all our augmentation schemes come on line by their target dates. There is little that can affordably compensate for a dramatic drop in rainfall, however hard we try.

By 2020, Cape Town should have increased its available water supply by 300 million litres a day through various augmentation methods – including desalination, aquifer abstraction and re-use.

But our population grows every year, and augmentation on its own is unlikely to be enough to provide for our previous consumption levels, even if proper rains fall. Sensible water use must become a way of life.

At the same time, the crisis has positioned Cape Town at the forefront of water resilience, which is rapidly becoming a necessity for major cities world-wide. Given what we have achieved – together with the growth of our water economy – we could both avoid reaching Day Zero and set the benchmark of water resilience for the rest of the planet. DM


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