Water, water, everywhere
February 4, 2018 10:46 AM   Subscribe

In less than 90 days, Cape Town may become the world’s first major city to run out of water.

Cape Town has long been proud of the quality of its municipal drinking water, piped from pure mountain reservoirs to serve a municipal area with more than four million residents and 15,000 hectares of irrigated farmland. But after three years of drought, “Day Zero” – the day when water stops flowing to most households and businesses – is projected to fall in mid-April 2018, well before the much-anticipated winter rains that typically begin in late May or June. To stave off this crisis, residents have been instructed to use no more than 50 liters (13 gallons) of water daily, less than 25% of the city’s per capita usage in 2010 and 15% of what the average American consumes every day.

Dam levels currently stand at 26.3% and are dropping at about 1% weekly (the last 10% of reserves are inaccessible). If reserves reach 13.5%, the municipality - which is South Africa’s legislative capital, home to the second largest population in the country, the third largest economic hub on the continent, the host of the 2010 World Cup, and the NYT’s Best Place in the World to Visit in 2014 - will stop providing piped water to most households and businesses. The remaining supply will continue to be flow only to public hospitals, informal townships, and the small but economically critical central business district. Most residents will line up each day at one of 200 water distribution points to collect their allocated 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of potable water. Nobody wants to think about what might happen if the last 3.5% of accessible water is exhausted.

How did this happen? Climate change, unsurprisingly, plays a large role, but critics of government inaction point to studies more than a decade earlier that warned of a looming crisis and ask why Cape Town has relied so long on surface water, only now scrambling to construct desalinization plants. City officials point out that climate models have grown increasingly unreliable, that dams were overflowing as recently as 2014, and that conservation measures are responsible for the impressive achievement of keeping water consumption flat while the region’s population grew 30%. Instead they point the finger at the national government, mumbling under their breath that the governing African National Congress party had no interest in preventing a predictable disaster in the only province run by the opposition Democratic Alliance party. The city’s wealthy residents shake their heads over alleged irresponsible waste taking place in informal settlements, ignoring the studies that show that townships account for only 4% of water use despite housing 25% of the population. Optimists point out that Day Zero can still be averted, and growing calls to band together are increasingly seen as the only way forward. Meanwhile, officials assure tourists that the city is open for business.
posted by exutima (55 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
City officials point out that climate models have grown increasingly unreliable

Weather models have grown increasingly inaccurate. Climate models have accurately predicted that this would be the result humans sticking a whole bunch of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:50 AM on February 4 [71 favorites]

“There are so many guys just standing around, with no jobs, so I’ll just give them two rands to carry the water,” he said, referring to the equivalent of about 17 cents.

The 21st century is fractally distopic.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:50 AM on February 4 [31 favorites]

It's really irresponsible of the province to go on so long with this disaster in the making. My home state of Western Australia saw the writing on the wall in 2001 and has all but abandoned surface water in its water plan. The Water Corp started work on the first desal plant in 2004 and had it up in 2006. Then they built a second one and there's work going on to expand the first. We're up to almost half of the state's water being provided by desal. The rest of the water comes from aquifers and work is ongoing to move from using the shallow aquifers to deeper aquifers and drawing at a rate of about 1% of the deeper aquifer's inflow.

Hopefully they get the desal on sooner rather than later. Good luck to them.
posted by Talez at 11:56 AM on February 4 [11 favorites]

Is desalinization a potential albeit expensive solution long-term? Or is that non-economical?
posted by Mid at 11:56 AM on February 4

If you read the articles they are building two temporary desal facilities with plans for permanent ones
posted by fshgrl at 12:03 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

City officials point out that climate models have grown increasingly unreliable, that dams were overflowing as recently as 2014

"The trend line shows us running out of water in the next ten years, in what will almost certainly be a huge humanitarian crisis killing thousands, but the margin of error is so high that it could be 30 years (by which time I'll be retired and my kids will be the ones dying of thirst), or it could be next year. Better ignore the problem entirely, just to be safe." --21st century climate change condensed into a paragraph
posted by Mayor West at 12:06 PM on February 4 [112 favorites]

It's really irresponsible of the province to go on so long with this disaster in the making.

I'd recommend digging deeper into the links provided before passing judgment on the province. One in particular is really heartbreaking:
Provinces don’t have the power to make water allocations to agriculture. This is done by the national government.

In 2015, the city of Cape Town was allocated 60% of the water from the Western Cape’s water supply system. Almost all of the rest went to agriculture, particularly long-term crops like fruit and wine as well as livestock.

The drought began to take its toll on provincial dam levels. Yet the national Department of Water and Sanitation took no action to curtail agricultural water use in 2015/2016.

There is evidence that the department’s failure went even further: that it allocated too much water to agriculture in the Western Cape. This pushed demand for water beyond the capacity of the supply system and consumed Cape Town’s safety buffer of 28 thousand megaliters.

Cape Town shows some of the best water saving levels in the world. But its supply dams are being hit by national government’s bungled water allocations to agriculture.
A lot of this is politics, and it's a story I expect to see in more places as our global situation gets worse. Political groups will use things like water scarcity as a stick to hurt their opponents, and it'll make bad problems worse.
posted by mordax at 12:12 PM on February 4 [25 favorites]

I saw a news story or documentary several years ago about chronic shortages of both electricity and water in India and a middle-class couple was interviewed: they had decided that the wife should quit her full-time job so that she could be certain to be at the water distribution station in their neighborhood when the tanker truck arrived.
posted by XMLicious at 12:13 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Mid, the city plans to eventually bring on line desalinization plants that can provide up to 200 megaliters of water per day, but the reservoirs' normal production is more like 900 megaliters, and even now, after pretty stark reductions have been made, the municipality is consuming 580 megaliters each day. Desalinization can only be part of the solution.
posted by exutima at 12:15 PM on February 4

Is desalinization a potential albeit expensive solution long-term?

It’s been working well for Israel, but as exutima points out, it needs to be coupled with things like strict conservation programs and aggressive wastewater treatment.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:32 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Cecil, is desal powered by diesel?
posted by fairmettle at 12:37 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure why I'm not finding it on DW's own Youtube account, but this documentary about the causes and consequences of terrible water shortages in Lima, Peru and elsewhere in the country was quite fascinating and enlightening, to see all of the perfectly logical things which end up happening you wouldn't think about. Particularly the "laundering" of water that isn't actually fit for human consumption but still gets sold to desperate people at an exorbitant profit, and the fact than in general poorer people end up paying substantially more for dramatically lower-quality water than do wealthier people.

I haven't watched it yet but in the course of searching for that I came across an Al Jazeera English ½-hr report about the situation in Cape Town.
posted by XMLicious at 12:38 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Compounding this tragedy, personally, is the absolute perversion of the ideology behind globalization to mean "unfettered access to multinational corporations" and not "oh shit a major world city is about to run out of water, this is obviously a crisis for all of humanity and a problem we need to solve together". We should be absolutely ashamed that this isn't framed in that manner.
posted by Chipmazing at 1:05 PM on February 4 [47 favorites]

Soooo glad I moved out of L.A. This could basically happen there at any time.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:09 PM on February 4

Yeah we've been considering where we want to move and Vegas and LA have some amenities we both like but man this is going to happen there soon.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:15 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

There could be desalination ships ready to respond. They've been building them for years.
posted by Brian B. at 1:22 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

Is desalinization a potential albeit expensive solution long-term?

For relatively well off countries it's somewhat viable for cities. Total non-starter for agriculture with current technology, as it's far too energy intensive, and I don't believe you can get the salt content low enough to not salt the fields pretty quickly (and that's true to varying extents with irrigation period).

When I got interested in peak oil around 2005 there was a fair bit of commentary predicting that water would be more of an issue than oil in the medium and maybe long term, and in this current moment that looks correct. Water scarcity -> food prices -> political instability is showing up around the edges, and it probably played a role in driving the Arab spring.
posted by MillMan at 1:50 PM on February 4 [8 favorites]

I am completely mystified by anyone who considers moving TO Las Vegas, or anyplace in the American Southwest. All the "smart growth" advocates that were praising Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh for his efforts to create a "liveable" downtown in Las Vegas seemed to have forgotten IT'S A CITY IN A WATERLESS DESERT.
posted by PhineasGage at 1:51 PM on February 4 [11 favorites]

SO, what happens if they don't get adequate desal online in time? Everyone just moves elsewhere and Cape Town becomes something like a cross between Fallout and Mad Max? Do they forcibly relocate a sizable percentage of the population?

I know I sound flippant, but this is a topic that makes me uncomfortable and I snark to make myself feel better, and this is a topic that fascinates me to no end.
posted by Samizdata at 1:53 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Cape Town may become the world’s first major city to run out of water.

Is Flint, Michigan not considered a major city?
posted by Revvy at 2:23 PM on February 4 [23 favorites]

I am completely mystified by anyone who considers moving TO Las Vegas, or anyplace in the American Southwest. All the "smart growth" advocates that were praising Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh for his efforts to create a "liveable" downtown in Las Vegas seemed to have forgotten IT'S A CITY IN A WATERLESS DESERT.

13 years ago, I took a Sierra Club trip to Alaska, and met a retirement age couple, both Arizona natives, whose main volunteer job was helping to relocate cacti and other native plants out of the path of the metastatic sprawl around Phoenix.

Their reasoning was that by putting these plants in out of the way places, they'd serve as a biological reservoir when the aquifer and the suburbs dependent on it collapsed. "Someday", the husband said, "Sierra Club will be leading trips into the ruins around my hometown."
posted by ryanshepard at 2:38 PM on February 4 [29 favorites]

Is Flint, Michigan not considered a major city?

it's an American city; mentioning it in American media like this would cause too much cognitive dissonance.
posted by indubitable at 2:38 PM on February 4 [9 favorites]

Actually, Las Vegas originally was settled because it *wasn't* a waterless desert. It was grassland around springs fed by the Las Vegas Aquifer; Las Vegas means "the meadows". Humans being humans, it was drained to the point of the springs no longer running by the mid-20th century, but the aquifer is still part of the water supply for Las Vegas.
posted by tavella at 2:39 PM on February 4 [23 favorites]

Also, they didn't 'run out' so much as 'poisoned it all' :/
posted by sexyrobot at 2:40 PM on February 4 [24 favorites]

(in Flint, I mean)
posted by sexyrobot at 2:41 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

yes and now instead "the meadows" is a shopping mall in las vegas. that city is on borrowed time. the population density/level alone is too much, but the way they use water is beyond unsustainable.

flint has water, its just not safe to drink. a very different tragedy.
posted by supermedusa at 2:52 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

Flint is only the seventh largest city in Michigan, and Detroit will likely fall below the top 25 largest cities in the US in the next census. So I don't think Flint would be considered a major city.
posted by riruro at 2:59 PM on February 4 [8 favorites]

Yes, Flint is different than Cape Town, yet both are population centers without water because of human greed. The cause and effect are the same, only the mechanism changed.
posted by Revvy at 3:14 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

Flint as a whole is not "out of water", and the source was switched back to the regional water system some time ago. The problem was that a couple years of more caustic (not polluted river water took calcification off the interior of pipes for mostly older households, mostly poor people, and those pipes need replacement which is happening but slowly (I don't know what all the constraints are there but it's probably logistically feasible to do it faster than they are, just more than they can/want to spend). But if you're in a modern home without lead supply lines you were never affected. I would agree that the financial crisis, which was preventable, had some effect on the water supply decision-making, but I've never seen a satisfactory explanation for why they switched to a known caustic source without treating the causticity as is routinely done elsewhere.
posted by dhartung at 3:22 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]

As another resident of Arrakis/Australia, I'll chime in to say desalination plants work great, it will almost certainly start to rain the day after the plant is completed and brought online, because that's how the universe works.

Unfortunately, the impression I get from the article, is that many of the strategies that helped in a small and wealthy country like Australia (lots of expensive residential and agricultural water efficiency upgrades) will be a lot harder to roll out on a broad scale in South Africa, because of the large-scale poverty and inequality. The rich South Africans install water tanks, and the poor ones will be queuing for raw water from springs.
posted by other barry at 3:29 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

FWIW, the Sydney water storage, got down to around 33% in 2006. However the main storage (Warragamba Dam) got lower, into the mid-20's IIRC, and they were pumping water from hundreds of kilometers south via the Shoalhaven Scheme. I remember there would be daily dam level updates on the news.

They were talking about either using recycled sewerage water for drinking (now that caused a public outcry) or building a desalination plant. They built the plant.
posted by other barry at 3:36 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Weren't there also some recent technological breakthroughs in desalination that made it less energy-intensive/more sustainable? I recall something involving nanomaterials.
posted by acb at 4:04 PM on February 4

I can't favorite Mayor west's summary of the problem enough.
Also, the time to fix these problems was a dozen years ago. Public works to build water storage, aquifer recharge, decarbonize the grid, etc. When proactive, these challenges are well understood tech that is mildly expensive. When we wait until 90 days before the water stops, these problems become calamities. This is why human societies can collapse from preventable/remediation-suitable problems: "maybe I can skip the bill and let someone else deal with it" fractally reiterated unto mass extinction.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 4:15 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]

Well, here on California's Central Coast, the five-year drought that officially ended last winter is apparently back, thanks to a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of High Pressure”. That's in spite of the recent rains that caused mudslides in suburbs of Santa Barbara after the fires burned off the watershed. My area was not yet to the point of water rationing two years ago, but getting close. The good news: there's already one desalinization plant south of here and plans to convert some facilities at the soon-to-be-shut-down Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant where the nuke cooling facility already de-salts some sea water. Purified sea water with residual radiation? Yum.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:18 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Hmmm.... I should bug Alfred Twu to make a Cape Town re-theme of the California Water Crisis board game. (Spoiler: It's all about politics. You can always hit the aquifer to save a few votes... until, of course, you can't.)
posted by kaibutsu at 4:38 PM on February 4

Well, there's good news for anyone who cares about water usage in their local region. The internationally-recognized IAPMO’s 2017 Water Efficiency and Sanitation Standard (WE•Stand) spells out code for homebuilt compost toilets, including bucket toilets.

PDF Draft document available here; final (as far as compost toilets, which is all I care about at the moment) is pretty much the same thing.

That's right, folks! There is now an internationally-recognized standard for safe use of the bucket toilet. Do with this information what you will.
posted by aniola at 6:42 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

A traditional Australian way to save water is (apparently) to put a brick or two in the toilet cistern, and also keep some buckets in the shower, so you can water the garden afterwards.

(I'm turning up a lot of awesome historical stuff about water shortages in Sydney, which has more or less continuously suffered shortages since the start of European occupation, and I think I will start trying to edit a fpp)
posted by other barry at 6:52 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]

Cape Town may become the world’s first major city to run out of water.

Kuala Lumpur 1998?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:11 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Reuse water makes a lot of sense (more than desal in some places) because wastewater is commonly treated then released, and then may or may not end up being part of drinking water. There is no reason why it can't be treated again to drinking water levels immediately, the tech exists. It's going to have to happen in drier places and we're going to have to stop being squeamish about it.
posted by emjaybee at 7:26 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

Like we could wear suits that had nano technology that processed sweat and other liquids for immediate recycling.
posted by sammyo at 8:33 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

Like we could wear suits that had nano technology that processed sweat and other liquids for immediate recycling.

posted by happyroach at 8:43 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

Are you thinking about these suits?
posted by TrishaU at 8:43 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Other Barry, I remember the daily updates about Warragamba. You could pretty much stop anyone in the street and they could give you the % down to one decimal point. Apparently we are a nation who likes details, like the road death toll over long weekends.

There's a lot of cultural change required too. Like you let the lawn die and everyone has those dual flush toilets. The random automatic flushing toilets in the US give me the rage. But ultimately it's businesses and agriculture that use and waste masses of water while little old grannies are hand watering their gardens with grey water.

And as a non American, there's no comparison between Flint and Cape Town. Cape Town is an internationally renowned destination. Poor Flint is known for totally screwing it's residents - we'd never have heard of it otherwise. I doubt anyone can name the 7th largest 'city' in my state. Whatever it is, it's just another large town.
posted by kitten magic at 12:24 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]

Like we could wear suits that had nano technology that processed sweat and other liquids for immediate recycling.

The "zoot suits" as described in Larry Niven's Foundation Trilogy could recycle urine like that
posted by thelonius at 2:54 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Is reknown as a destination for the international classes a much better definition for "major", though? Per the Wikipedia article linked to in the OP, Cape Town's got a bit less than 4 million residents in its metro area from 2016 numbers. But for example according to the megacity article Lagos is several times larger and reached its present size up from 300,000 people in 1950. And Lima, where circumstances are described by a 2015 Deutsche Welle documentary I linked to above, is at least twice the size.

Do all the citizens of Lagos today really have better access to water than Cape Town residents will after Day Zero? I am suspicious that the "first major city in the world!" laurel and talk of Mad Max scenarios are actually comparing the situation of Capetonians to that of the wealthy residents of large cities around the world and they'll actually be experiencing what the poorer residents of many cities go through all the time.

Perhaps someone with a better grasp on municipal infrastructure worldwide can confirm or deny my suspicions. If it's less unique than portrayed it's not to say the situation in Cape Town is not dangerous or not a crisis, it's just a matter of proper perspective on a very widespread problem.
posted by XMLicious at 2:55 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]

The point isn't about the number of people having to haul water, it's about losing municipal water due to lack of supply. Yes, by definition, that means being well-off enough to have running water in your house in the first place and living somewhere that has municipal water. That doesn't remove the fact it's not the best milestone to be reaching.
posted by hoyland at 4:17 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]

Well, here on California's Central Coast, the five-year drought that officially ended last winter is apparently back, thanks to a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of High Pressure”.

Heaven forbid anyone use the archeological record and say "hey, it turns out this place doesn't get a whole lotta water" and adjust consumption ideas accordingly.

Most places are under local tribal Gods who have as the handed down scripture which states "Thou shall not have non potable water in pressurized pipes" thus taking rainwater or other 'greywater' and using it to flush toilets is a local sin and therefore forbidden. So far only your friends and neighbors look at you funny if you have 5 gal pails next to your toilet for flushing. (Your dog won't mind however as that bathroom bucket water has visited flavortown.)

Then sometimes people insist on making things even harder and agree to invoke a home or block spirit which then forbade the use of rainwater capture in the form of barrels or totes. People willing invoke these HOAs or find the only housing to be bought have HOAs and therefore the situation is take it or leave it.

So a uniquely American experience is to take perfectly drinkable* water, place it in a bowl, make it non-drinkable and then send it off for processing in .5L to 5 gallon batches.

*Flint, some well water, and other cases excluded.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:07 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]

This reminds me of Vivienne Bennett’s book about the politics of water, gender, and protest in Monterrey.

hus taking rainwater or other 'greywater'

At the risk of an excess of pendanticism, rain water storage/reuse and greywater (ie non-sewage wastewater) bring up different legal and technical issues. In most places, neither is going to be a major part of solving water issues just because of scale, though obviously it can help.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

las vegas. that city is on borrowed time. the population density/level alone is too much, but the way they use water is beyond unsustainable.

While the long-term sustainability of any city in the US SW has to be questioned in the face of climate change, Las Vegas is not a good example to bash. Nevada has only a small share of Colorado compact water in the first place, and as a very much late-comer to using it LV does not get a lot of Nevada's share. They therefore have been forced by necessity into conservation. They recycle water into the Colorado very efficiently (this increases their ability to draw back), they promote xeriscaping for new and old development, and have instituted tighter restrictions on the thousands of wells in the valley.

Yes, there are thousands of wells in Las Vegas. As I said, it's not actually a waterless desert, it is the drainage point for the rains and snowmelt in the mountains around it, which is where the aquifer recharges from; it's not actually fossil water like many in the west. The Bellagio fountains? Well water drawn directly from the property. Dunes golf course? Also well water. As with all of the SW, their future is in doubt because the snowmelt will disappear and the Colorado will dry up, but they are actually the most efficient and conservation minded of all the cities there. And by the time the Colorado dries up, it's not just the Southwest that will be in crisis, water patterns will have changed everywhere.

(I feel kind of weird defending LV here, I don't even like the city much!)
posted by tavella at 9:50 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]

Las Vegas can be doing better than other cities in the US SW, and still using water beyond unsustainable. Other cities in the US SW is a low bar.

(I still enjoyed reading your comment anyway!)
posted by aniola at 12:10 PM on February 5

(Actually, I may be wrong about most efficient, a bunch of the SW cities have made serious improvements. But Las Vegas does use less Colorado water than they did 15 years ago, despite the population increasing by 50 percent in that period.)
posted by tavella at 12:43 PM on February 5

Is Los Angeles Next? (spoiler: probably not, but don't get cocky)

"LA’s water portfolio, what scientists call the sources from where a city gets its water, is diverse and well-funded, but experts say the city can do more to accommodate for future climate change and population growth.

While LA has drastically reduced its water demand—Cooley confirmed that despite the city’s population growth, water use is lower today than it was 30 years ago—it’s still necessary to prepare for long droughts, to better recycle water, and to continue to reduce use."
posted by mogget at 4:39 PM on February 6

Cape Town Day Zero moved to July 9th.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:37 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

In Nepal the 2015 earthquake evidently disrupted the region's hydrology: drying up both ancient and modern irrigation sources and municipal water sources, and contaminating water sources as a result of leakage from damaged sewage storage and transport lines.

So despite Nepal having some of the most abundant water resources of any country it's currently suffering from multiple water-supply-related crises; farmland which could previously support crops year-round with irrigation can now only provide food during the monsoon season and the price of water along with fraud by private suppliers in densely populated regions forces some of the poorest people, knowingly or unknowingly, to use contaminated water. "Nepal's Water Fight", an episode of last year's Season 15 of Channel NewsAsia's Get Real documentary series.
posted by XMLicious at 10:21 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]

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