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The urban water crisis | The World Weekly

In the past year, forest fires, heavy storms, floods and mudslides have left their violent mark across the globe. This month, temperatures are reaching record levels at both ends of the scale as extreme weather patterns show no signs of stopping.

Icy weather continues to wreak havoc in cities across the US. Elsewhere, high temperatures and low rainfall have been causing major problems in the global south. In many places, water is now in short supply.

Water scarcity is often associated with remote, rural areas where communities live disconnected from national supply systems and may have to walk long distances to access clean water.

However, bustling urban centres are not exempt from water stress. Basic infrastructure and services tend to be more widely available. Yet, as urban populations grow, the water supplies to many cities are becoming ever more scarce.

Cape Town is one such city. Residents may have little more than 90 days of water remaining. The city’s dams are now at critically low levels, the result of three consecutive years of unseasonably dry winters.

It is forecast that taps will run dry on April 21, so-called Day Zero. If Day Zero becomes reality, locals will collect water from designated checkpoints around the city, each person allocated no more than 25 litres a day. The city must now prepare for the worst.

“The water-stress has arrived much earlier than what had been planned for,” Nick Tandi, programme manager of Strategic Water Partners Network in South Africa, told The World Weekly. “Cape Town had planned to augment supply options in four years or so, but the water is needed right now.”

Water rationing is already in effect. At the beginning of January, a severe “level 6” water restriction limited daily consumption to 87 litres per person. The failure of many to comply means that next month will prove even tougher. February will bring a limit of 50 litres a day, as well as much higher water tariffs.

A standard dishwasher cycle consumes 22 litres of water and a 10-minute shower around 100 litres. The average Briton uses 150 litres of water per day. In the US, daily consumption can exceed 300 litres.

A changing climate is not the only factor at play in water-scarce regions. Demand for fresh water is on the rise, with a global increase of 64,000 litres a year. Growing urban populations now use more water per capita because of changing lifestyles and eating habits.

Long-term mismanagement of water supplies also plays a part. Water loss can exceed 30% in South African supply systems due to leaks and bursts or contamination. Furthermore, a lack of effective cooperation between national and local governments can lead to inefficiency, underfunding and misallocation of water supplies.

“The social and political factors are probably more important influences in creating a water crisis than simply a shortage of rain,” David Olivier, a researcher for the Global Change Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told TWW.

Climate change may be exacerbating the situation, but socioeconomic and political issues often lie at the core of water scarcity.

The bigger picture

The crisis in Cape Town is not unique. Around the world, more than 2.5 billion people lack access to basic levels of fresh water for at least one month each year. It is estimated that around 1 billion urban dwellers have no running water at home.

Countries with hot, arid climates are particularly prone to water-stress. Yet, many places with such climatic characteristics have no shortage of drinkable water.

“The most important factor is money,” Grégoire Landel, CEO and founder of CityTaps, an organisation which provides running water to urban homes in poor countries, told TWW. “If a country is rich, it can often pay its way out of water scarcity.”

Desalination is one way of avoiding water scarcity. The resource-rich nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain are home to almost half of the world’s water desalination plants. The process treats seawater or brackish water, making it suitable for human use and providing a handy alternative for countries lacking in sources of freshwater.

However, desalination plants require huge amounts of energy and money. “Without the money to invest, there is no way for the resource to be transformed into potable water,” says Mr. Landel, whose organisation aims to lower costs for both water companies and consumers in emerging economies.

Such solutions are not possible everywhere. This is especially true of war-torn nations where existing water supplies are often targeted by armed groups or become collateral damage in the conflict.

“In countries like Syria and Yemen, water is not the cause of unrest and violence, but it undoubtedly exacerbates and amplifies the problem,” says Giulio Boccaletti, global managing director for water at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental conservation organisation.

In Yemen, 16 million people lack access to safe water. A deadly conflict has gripped the country for over two and a half years as Houthi rebels fight a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Both sides have reportedly damaged or blocked water sources. Meanwhile, national water supply systems have ceased to function. The lack of clean water has fuelled the spread of a cholera epidemic which has claimed over 2,000 lives and affected around one million people.

If Cape Town does not become the world’s first waterless city, some predict that Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, could take its place.

A political problem

“The water problem is fundamentally political,” Antonio Ioris, a lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University, told TWW. “The mere adoption of more efficient technologies or the construction of additional supply infrastructure is only going to offer temporary mitigation.”

Water is “typically appropriated by powerful political and economic groups,” says Dr. Ioris. Viewing water as a source of profit or mere commodity, experts say, can sideline the needs and preferences of the public.

In Bolivia, the politics of water management has a particularly turbulent history. A loan from the World Bank in 1997 led to the privatisation of Bolivian water systems. Yet, private companies failed to supply water to the poorest households and significantly raised the price of water bills. Popular uprisings broke out in the cities of Cochabamba, La Paz and El Alto, forcing the government to re-nationalise water services.

However, the water problem was far from solved. In 2016, Bolivia suffered its worst drought in over 25 years, leading to the implementation of severe water rationing. Existing infrastructure is outdated and water loss as high as 40-50%. Continuing tensions between the public and private sector, national and local government and rural and urban needs have only exacerbated the situation.

Similar mismanagement of water supply systems seems to be a root cause of the current water scarcity in Cape Town. National departments fund and implement dams and pipelines but, once in a city network, the local government takes over. The national government can be less aware of the specific needs of each region, observers say, causing problems of misallocation and funding, whereas local entities may lack knowledge of the systems they inherit and face criticism for decisions made higher up.

Long-term solutions, says Dr. Ioris, require a “serious review of cooperative government structures, as well as of public urban and economic policies.” As city officials begin to explore alternatives to surface water such as groundwater, desalination of seawater and water recycling, a more diversified water supply may soon arrive to Cape Town.

However, as Day Zero edges ever closer, emergency, short-term solutions are urgently needed.

A city cannot change its location or its physical propensity to water scarcity. What can and perhaps must change are approaches to the management and use of water. The crisis in Cape Town serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers dwindling water resources pose to cities all over the world.

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