Waterless in Cape Town

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Waterless in  Cape Town

India must learn from the experiences of waterless Cape Town and set up a Drought Management Commission for a comprehensive approach to the issue

Cape Town is far away and generally features in our consciousness only when the Indian cricket team plays a Test match or a One-day International there. Not many, therefore, are aware of the severe drought that afflicts it and threatens to disrupt its life. Three straight years of drought since 2014, when all the six dams, that supply waters to the city of four million people were full to their capacity of 230 billion gallons, have led to the present situation where they are full only to 26 per cent of their capacity.

The city is building 200 emergency water stations, each serving almost 20,000 residents. Plans for storing emergency water at military installations are on the anvil. Patrols to prevent water thefts at natural springs have become more frequent. There is an attempt to crack down on unscrupulous traders charging more for bottled water. Residents have been asked to use no more than 50 litres of water daily, against the earlier limit of 87 litres. The use of city drinking water to wash vehicles, hose down paved areas, fill up private swimming pools and water gardens is illegal. Residents using too much water face fines or have devices that limit water supply installed on their properties.

The most alarming, however, is the prospect of tap supplies being cut, which, according to city officials, would happen when water in the reservoirs come down to 13.5 per cent of full. Initially, the date fixed for this was April 16, 2018, which was designated as ‘Day Zero’. After that day, it was announced, people would have to queue up before at 200 water stations for daily rations of 25 litres. People in Cape Town, who were dreading the prospect, sighed in some relief as city officials announced on February 5, that the date for cutting off supplies had been extended to May 11. The hard fact, however, remains that, the postponement was due not to an increase in the water-levels in the reservoirs but a decline in agricultural use. The threat of ‘Day Zero’ becoming a reality will remain as long as the dry spell continues. And there is no guarantee that it would not continue.

The present crisis is a result of three developments — influx of populations, over-development and drought caused by local conditions as well as climate change. City officials realised as many as 20 years ago that there might be a serious problem with water supply and took steps to reduce water usage. They reduced leaks, compelled large users to pay more and tried to shame the highest users by making their names public.

Their efforts won them several international awards for efficient water management.

City officials, however, did not do enough to increase water supply because they did not expect the situation to assume such acute crisis proportions and so soon. They have now sprung into action. New water wells are being dug. A plant for treating and re-using effluents is being built, as are four desalinisation of sea water plants. It would, however, take time to complete these projects all, except one, of which are behind schedule.

The example Cape Town provides of the need to be able to anticipate the pace of approach and magnitude of a water supply crisis, needs to be studied widely as governments of most countries and many cities in the world would be facing acute water shortages and not at a distant future. Melbourne in Australia may run out of water in little over a decade. Jakarta is facing a huge crisis. The reservoirs supplying water to Sao Palo, Brazil, had so little water in 2015 that mud came into pipes. Many residents of Mexico City, which has a population of 21 million, have running water only for a part of the day while 20 per cent of them have water in their taps only for a few hours once every  week.

Many cities in India face acute water shortage. Chennai had to go through a major crisis several years ago. The situation will worsen with global warming and increasing and unpredictable frequency of droughts. There is, therefore, an urgent need to address the situation and set up a Drought Management Commission for a comprehensive approach to the issue.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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