Anyone walking down the corridor in the arrivals area of Cape Town International Airport during the drought would have been struck by a slick advert, the size of a small tourist bus, broadcasting its message to passengers streaming into the airport.

‘Please save water’ the clinical blue font pleaded, next to a larger-than-life graphic of Table Mountain drawn in the shape of flowing water. ‘We have a water crisis with severe restrictions in place. Thank you for playing your part in protecting this precious commodity.’

The City’s choice of wording in this ad campaign shows up one of the fault-lines in the munici-pality’s efforts to meet its service delivery needs across one of the most socially and economically unequal cities in the world: some see water as a ‘commodity’, a product to be bought and sold by those with the means to trade in it; but many others see it as a basic human right and part of a common good resource, something that we need to share fairly, regardless of who has the means to buy it and who doesn’t.

But at the same time, it costs money to build, run, and maintain the system of water treatment plants, pipes and taps that bring this water into people’s homes. Someone has to pay for this expensive infrastructure, and its upkeep. Since national government doesn’t fund this, it falls to the City to pay its own way.

Like all municipalities across the country, Cape Town has a tiered block-tariff billing system: the cost of the first basic units of water is relatively low, but the more a household uses, the steeper the price increase becomes. The income from the higher-priced water subsidises water delivery to lower-paying households, and households registered with the City as ‘indigent’ who get a free basic quota, and brings free water to the standpipes in informal settlements, which service around 180 000 households.

This tariffing system means that City managers see the water that comes down the pipeline when someone opens a tap as a ‘product’ and a source of income. Higher sales means the City can keep topping up the coffers, and have money to pay for better service delivery to the many parts of the city that still need to get onto the water grid.

Why would a city with this ‘revenue model’ want to sell less of this ‘commodity’, or encourage citizens to throttle back on their use? This model for paying for service delivery remains one of the biggest challenges to creating more sustainable usage of resources in South Africa’s cities.

The City came under a lot of fire for seeming to delay the use of more aggressive tools to get residents to cut their water use, like restrictions and fines, and some still speculate that the income issue might be one of the reasons for these delays. Certainly, as water use dropped, the City’s accountants did start to get nervous about lost revenues.

The future of designing sustainable, resource-resilient cities depends on finding solutions to this developing city conundrum. Development thinkers have been floating alternative models around for years already. One idea is for cities to shift their focus from making money out of selling the actual resource to the public, and rather charging for providing the grid infrastructure that delivers the water and electricity throughout the city.

After the drought, in June 2018, the City restructured the water tariff so that household water bills now include a fixed charge that depends on the size of the pipe delivering water. The reason for this is that everyone using municipal water, even if it’s just a small amount, still contributes to the cost of the water supply and sewage infrastructure.

Another idea to boost lost water sales revenue was a ‘drought levy’. But the City abandoned this before they’d had a chance to roll it out, because of the strong push-back from the public who felt that they were already shouldering their share of responsibility with the tariff hikes brought in during the drought.

Stabilising dam levels until the drought broke

The City needed a two-pronged strategy to stabilise plummeting dam levels and to stretch what water was left until the drought finally broke: boosting supply, and throttling back on demand.

Tackling the supply-side issue involved getting more water into the system: getting temporary desalination plants up and running, and drilling boreholes into some of the bigger groundwater reserves around the catchments. These needed quick planning and budgeting, release of large funds, and the fast-tracking of tendering processes.

Many of these were complicated technical solutions that needed action from many different government departments across all three spheres of government – local, provincial, and national – and some of these efforts took on a distinctly political flavour (see The Politicians).

However, whatever decision-making happened around engineering solutions, it became clear by the height of the drought in the summer of 2017/2018 that few of these would be able to deliver new water into the system before the next winter rains were due to start. They may be good for medium-term planning, and to appease an anxious public, but might not stop the arrival of Day Zero.

But before pulling the trigger on expensive tech solutions, the local office of an international civil society organisation, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), warned the City to make decisions based on reliable economic calculations of the actual cost of the various solutions. In 2017, TNC commissioned a team of local environmental economists to compare the cost of various engineering solutions with another ‘softer’ supply-side solution: clearing invasive alien trees from the city’s main water catchments (see The Knowledge Brokers).

Their calculations showed that a relatively small investment of R370 million in today’s value over the next 30 years to restore the priority water catchments around the city’s three main dams, would be a better return on investment than the medium-term hard-engineered solutions. They suggested that in the haste of decision-making, the City shouldn’t forget to also prioritise ecosystem restoration as part of its longer-term water management strategy.

The challenge with this approach, though, is that clearing these heavily invaded areas, restoring the catchments, and maintaining their ‘ecosystem services’, calls for planning, coordination, funding, and management that spans three decades or more – a much longer time-horizon than the voting cycle of a politician or even the likely career of a city technocrat.

Throttling back on demand

The second thing the City needed to do was to throttle back the amount of water getting drawn off the system: patching up leaks in the water grid, reducing pressure in the pipes, getting the public to voluntarily reduce their water use, and installing devices that shut water off in the homes of people who were exceeding restrictions.

Water Management Devices

Water management devices are a way for a city to micro-manage a household’s water use: the gadget is attached to the water meter, and is set to allow a pre-determined quota of water through each day. Cape Town has been using these in lower income households since 2007, where the device allows 350L of water through per household, per day, beyond which the water cuts off until the next 24-hour cycle starts.

As the drought peaked, the City started putting these into high-water-usage homes where people were breaking restrictions and not responding to fines and tariff hikes.

Water devices have been controversial from the beginning, though, and their use has had political undercurrents.

The rationale for installing them in lower-income neighbourhoods, according to the City, was that poor households tend to have faulty and unmaintained plumbing, which leads to leaks. This reflects in a family’s accounts, and results in high water debt. These devices were a way to protect poorer families from getting into greater debt, the City maintained.

But critics such as the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) argued that the policy is punitive. Its position is that families are often bullied into agreeing to the installation; that the leaks often aren’t their fault so they shouldn’t be penalised for them, or made to shoulder the resulting debt; that the 350L per day ration is calculated for a household of only four people, when many poorer households are much larger than that and need more water per day; that the water shuts off early in the day before people have met all their basic sanitation needs; that these devices prevent people from running small businesses and supporting their livelihoods; and it allows richer communities, who might be more politically powerful, to get away with ‘luxury’ water use simply because they can afford it.

The City needed a two-pronged strategy to stabilise plummeting dam levels and to stretch what water was left until the drought finally broke: boosting supply, and throttling back on demand.

The City prioritised drilling boreholes to bring new sources of water into the system as quickly as possible.
The City prioritised drilling boreholes to bring new sources of water into the system as quickly as possible.

By the time the drought peaked, though, the City had a decade’s worth of expertise with these devices, and the institutional processes to install them quickly and efficiently. When it needed a more punitive way of tackling those wealthier users who were flouting water restrictions, they could roll these out quickly, sometimes as fast as 2000 installations a week, in some of the more affluent suburbs, according to a City source. Some saw the move as fair, as it targeted households based on water use rather than income levels.

Pressure Management

The City already had pressure management zones in place before the crisis peaked, so in January 2018 it was easy to dial down the pressure across the piped infrastructure when things became critical. The City contracted private sector operators to help isolate various zones and through a system of manual and automated pressure-reduction valves, were able to cut pressure where needed. In the first three months alone, the City saved about 50 million litres of water per day, because it slowed the rate at which water flowed out of people’s taps or escaped through leaks.

Restrictions and Fines

This is how the City used restrictions and fines to tighten up demand-side water use:

Water Restrictions

A city hamstrung by national-level inertia

Signing off on the various utility-scale supply side projects to boost water supply meant that many different government departments had to work together, quickly, both within the City, but also upward towards provincial and national government. There were issues of trust, the potential for political rivalry, and the different funding and time-horizons that come with big engineering projects (see The Politicians).

The Project Portfolio Management (PPM) unit in the Directorate of the Mayor tried to tackle some of the institutionalised management issues between different City departments by hard-wiring better cooperation into operations and bureaucratic processes.

Our Constitution obliges both national and provincial government to support municipalities in their service delivery functions. The national Department of Water handles bulk water supply across the country. But the department has been failing in many of its functions in recent years: it has not kept up with infrastructure maintenance or new supply; there’s been a high turnover of directors-general, which has created instability in the department; and more than half of the waste water treatment works across the country are failing.

Throughout the disaster, several national departments needed to support the City, including the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), and the National Treasury. The provincial Department of Environment Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP), Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT), Disaster Management and Fire Rescue Services, Department of Transport and Public Works, and the Office of the Premier also had to step in.

Looking back, it’s clear that many City officials felt that the national DWS dropped the ball in terms of its leadership through the disaster. The DWS was responsible for setting water restrictions and for funding certain infrastructure projects, but stalled on both counts, according to many City officials. Local government was often hamstrung until the national department acted, but the City took the flack for what the public might have read as inaction.

Whose water is it anyway?

At one point during the drought, someone was photographed pumping water from the Liesbeek River, which flows through the southern suburbs of the city, into Jojo tanks on the back of a flatbed truck. Whether or not the driver knew this was illegal is still unclear, but according to our Constitution, river water is the mandate of the national government, which issues permits for extraction. This case highlights people’s confusion about who owns what water.

Author Jared Diamond has a good analogy for how we use a common pool resource like groundwater: if two or three people put their straws into a milkshake and take a drink, the level will drop a bit, but if 20 people do the same, it won’t take long to empty the glass.

Fixing leaks in the water supply system became a priority as the drought worsened.
Fixing leaks in the water supply system became a priority as the drought worsened.

Groundwater, spring water, and river water are all part of the common pool of the country’s water reserves, and our national government is responsible for managing and sharing these fairly, to everyone’s benefit.

Private borehole drilling took off as the drought worsened. While people didn’t need permits from national government to do so, they were asked to register these boreholes with the City, although there wasn’t much follow-through on this.

There was a lot of confusion about who could access what alternative water sources. What about spring water, who was entitled to collect this? And what if this public-owned water flowed out on someone’s private property? Could people just pump from rivers as they pleased? Government needed to communicate these issues with the public.

How do we use ‘alternative water’?

As some households and businesses tried to insulate themselves against the uncertainty of a possible municipal grid failure, people started looking for alternative water sources: rainwater storage, borehole and well-water, and grey-water treatment systems. But there was a great deal of uncertainty about the health and environmental risks, about what regulations people should comply with, and about what the best practices should be around how to use them.

The media ran amuck with speculation: don’t let grey water stand for more than 24 hours, some said, because pathogens start to build up in it. Don’t take grey water captured from bathing or washing machines, and pour it directly into your toilet as an alternative to flushing with clean water from the cistern, because it could aerosolise any pathogens or detergent chemicals in the grey water, and you might breathe them in. How do you clean water collected from a dirty roof? What about the pH in well-water? Can you drink it? Can you retrofit buildings to use non-potable water for flushing loos?

During the drought, the City drew up its Guidelines for the Installation of Alternative Water Systems to help communicate more effectively around regulations, best practices, and health and environmental risks for these various alternative sources of water. Although the summary version has been available since 2017, the full guidelines have taken time to be finalised.