CAPE Town’s water crisis continues to be a source of concern and confusion as demonstrated by the furore over the ‘cancellation’ of Day Zero. But the rest of the country must learn from Cape Town – and the rest of the world – how to manage water in our dry and uncertain climate.

This Water Week, the UN’s High Level Panel on Water provided some key messages. The problem, they explain, is that water management is a particularly complex challenge, involving a wide range of stakeholders. As a result, they say, partnerships are key to coordinating planning and mobilization of resources.

South Africa used to be an example of how to do it but our experience is often ignored, even at home. Indeed, despite evidence of growing crises, of which Cape Town is just one, the planning and management system on which we depend for our water security is being allowed to collapse.

That is perhaps the most serious legacy of disgraced former Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, even worse than her gross financial recklessness.

The problem is aggravated by the failure of stakeholders like business and municipalities to get involved. Business, in particular, seems to have been captured by environmental agendas instead of focusing on ensuring water security for people and the economy. Why is business not focusing on Decision Day, at the end of the rains in October 2018, when Capetonians will know their fate for the coming year?

Consider three key questions about ‘Day Zero’,:- Was Cape Town ever really in danger of “running out of water”? Was Day Zero just a publicity ploy? Or was it part of internal DA political squabbles?

The answer to all three questions is an emphatic Yes!

If Cape Town had not acted to dramatically reduce water consumption, empty dams could have seen normal supplies interrupted. While not a certainty, this was a strong possibility.

Day Zero was clearly used to frighten people into compliance – and there is evidence that it worked. But it created considerable confusion and has damaged Cape Town’s reputation as a well-run city and its valuable brand as a globally attractive destination.

Finally, internal DA politics obviously affected how the crisis was handled. The sidelining of Mayor Patricia De Lille was evidence of political tension as was Premier Helen Zille’s incessant twitter barrage and the invisibility of Anton Bredell, the MEC nominally responsible for coordinating disaster response. Mmusi Maimane’s sudden declaration of the ‘end’ of Day Zero worsened the confusion and made crisis management more difficult.

What the rest of the country needs to know is whether the city was warned about the risks? Was it really the responsibility of the national government to take action? And must national government pay for the investments that are now being made? If other municipalities don’t want to face similar challenges, they urgently need answers to these questions.

So, yes, Cape Town was warned repeatedly of the need to invest in new infrastructure to increase water supplies.

For 30 years, the national Department of Water has planned the country’s major water supply systems. These include the Western Cape Water Supply System, the dams, pipelines, canals and pumping stations that tap the Berg and Breede Rivers and supply Cape Town as well as many smaller towns and very productive agriculture.

Computer models of the System allow the Department to predict how much water is likely to be available for different users every year. Although seasonal rainfall cannot accurately be predicted, these models estimate likely worst case droughts based on historic information. These predictions, with estimates of future water demand, are used to make recommendations that aim to ensure enough water in case of drought.

On this basis, the Department recommended back in 2007 that increased supplies would be needed for Cape Town by 2015. These recommendations were reinforced by the National Development Plan which, in 2012, set out a list of major investment projects and targets for completion. On the list were. “Western Cape water-reuse and groundwater projects, which are to be completed by 2017.” These are among the projects that the City is now rushing to build.

So there is no question – the city was warned, well in advance.

The next question: Was it the responsibility of national government to take action? Is linked to the third:- Who should pay for the investments? Policy is that, where supply infrastructure is developed outside the municipal area, national government should take the lead. This was done in Cape Town, in 2002, when the Department persuaded Cape Town that it needed a new dam on the Berg River. That dam, completed in 2009, is currently saving Cape Town from a real crisis.

The Department needed the city’s agreement to build the dam. Urban water supplies, beyond very basic provision, are supposed to be paid for by their users. But for a rich city like Cape Town, that’s easy. When the city signed the agreement in 2002, banks like the European Investment Bank clamoured to lend to TCTA, the national agency that implemented the project.

So what went wrong this time? In 2013, Cape Town’s delegates to the annual meeting of the planning forum said that no new investments would be needed until 2022 because their demand management programme had been so successful.

When the current crisis is over, we should look back and see whether that confidence was justified. There had been two years of good rainfall, which surely dampened demand. The subsequent three-year drought certainly aggravated the situation. But that event was what the planners’ recommendations targeted.

Perhaps it was just bad luck that the drought occurred when the City was at its most vulnerable. But, according to Xanthea Limberg, the City’s councillor responsible for water issues, they knowingly took this risk. In April 2017, she told Business Day that “in our context, it is not practical to ring-fence billions of rand for the possibility of a drought that might not come to pass.”

She has come to regret those words. If Cape Town had invested earlier, they would have paid perhaps R500 million in extra interest costs if no drought had occurred. But that early investment would simply have been insurance against disaster.

To date, additional expenditures of over R2.5 billion have been incurred, not counting the indirect cost of job losses and damage to the city’s brand. And it is still growing.

What can other cities and towns learn from this experience? Aren’t these problems of climate change? In general, if water managers can manage current climate variability, they will be able to manage climate change impacts.

To do that, however, their models need to be regularly updated, if they are to reflect climate change trends. Failure to do this simply increases our vulnerability to climate surprises.

This shows where municipalities and business stakeholders should be getting involved if they want to ensure their water security. Rather than endless touchy-feely ‘water stewardship’ initiatives, they should bring their skills and concerns to the table and talk practical management.

Where is the planning process? Who is running it? Have the models been updated? What do they say? What needs to be done, by when and who is going to do it? Where will the money come from? Who is operating the systems and are they doing it properly?

Despite the Cape Town crisis, none of those hard questions are currently being asked. We don’t even know who will convene October’s Decision Day meeting or whether there is funding to prepare for it.

Cape Town’s focus on managing demand for water and conserving the environment remains important but was too narrow. If basic supplies needed to sustain people, their jobs and the economy on which they depend are put at risk, environmental priorities will be sidelined and costs will soar. Water security requires a balanced, prioritised and disciplined approach which tracks the situation, flags the interventions needed and ensures that they are made on time. This is perhaps the most important lesson from Cape Town’s current crisis. The rest of South Africa should take note.

Mike Muller is a Professional Engineer and visiting Professor at Wits University’s School of Governance. A former DG of Water Affairs (1997-2005), he was also a National Planning Commissioner (2010-2015)

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