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Public shaming helps stop Cape Town from running dry

May 6, 2018

Farmers have also provided crucial relief by releasing irrigation water from private dams to supply the city.

To make sure everyone stays on board, police enforce the regulations.

Officers patrol the streets watching for people watering their gardens with a hose or washing cars, or construction workers using city water to mix cement — all of which are offenses which could result in fines.

Public shaming helps stop Cape Town from running dryPublic shaming helps stop Cape Town from running dry

Police spokesman Wayne Dyason said the restrictions — and the patrols — will continue even through South Africa’s wetter winter months.

“We want to make sure that people don’t become too relaxed and that people don’t take their foot off the pedal with regards to applying themselves to saving water,” Dyason said.

Long-term solutions to Cape Town’s water crisis range from the practical, but costly, construction of desalination plants to a more exotic plan to lasso icebergs from Antarctica.

Marine salvage expert Nick Sloane has proposed capturing a drifting iceberg in the southern sea, wrapping it in fabric and towing it to the South African coast.

The point is to diversify Cape Town’s water sources, which currently come almost entirely from dams and reservoirs.

Dam levels in the city have dropped steadily on average over the last three years. Even with some recent early winter rain, dam levels on average remain at around 20 percent of capacity.

The largest dam, Theewaterskloof is closer to 11 percent. Its western banks are bone dry, and the terrain looks more like a desert than a reservoir.

Image: A plant grows in a cracked mud near Cape Town, South Africa
A plant grows between cracked mud in a normally submerged area at the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, on Jan. 21. The dam supplies most of the city’s potable water.MIKE HUTCHINGS / Reuters, file

The need to conserve is clear, but not everyone agrees with the city’s methods.

Shaheed Mohammed, a member of the Water Crisis Coalition, a grassroots activist organization, is concerned that if Cape Town invests in expensive technology like desalination to solve the drought, it will be the city’s low-income citizens paying the costs in terms of higher tariffs for water.

“This is not North America, where people have huge incomes,” he said.

The city has already been installing water-management devices on people’s homes to cut off those who go above the monthly limit.

Mohammed thinks it is a step toward forcing people to pay more up front. “In other words,” he says, “no money, no water.”

Image: Cape Town drought
NASA images showing the falling water levels of the Theewaterskloof dam over a period of three years.NASA

The lessons of Cape Town can be applied to other cities around the world.

While there is no imminent warning of a Day Zero coming to the United States, models from the World Resources Institute (WRI), an independent non-profit research organization in Washington, D.C., point toward growing water stress across the country.

Charles Iceland, director of Water Initiatives at WRI, says rainfall is predicted to decrease by up to 30 percent on average in the southwestern U.S., an indication of climate change, which means Americans may too find themselves having to adjust.

“We’re going to have to find a way to live with more erratic weather in the future,” Iceland said.

A recent report from WRI shows the situation is even more dire in other areas reliant on dams, including in Morocco, India and Iraq.

“We’ll probably see more and more of these Cape Town Day Zero types of events elsewhere around the world,” Iceland said.

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