Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Water Resilience | Water Stressed Cities

Cape town city crop

What pushes a major city like Cape Town to the brink of running out of water?

In early 2018, people around the world prayed for rain in South Africa. Outside Cape Town, the city’s reservoirs were down to 26% capacity. Inside the city, officials begged people to use just 50 litres of water a day – around a third of what the average Briton uses daily. Cape Town’s government said it would have to shut off drinking water to homes across the city. The police worried about riots.

By April, it became clear the city would just about avoid reaching “Day Zero”, the date when Cape Town was forecast to run out of water.

Sigh of relief

The world breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Cape Town’s predicament received a lot of attention as people across the globe grappled with the idea that a major city could run out of water – and wondered whether they could be next. Experts say the water supplies of Africa’s four largest cities – Cairo, Kinshasa, Lagos and Johannesburg – could all be similarly strained soon, as could Karachi, Lahore, Mumbai and Kathmandu in Asia.

Delhi is already struggling, and wealthier cities like Beijing and even Los Angeles will also face long-term supply problems if global warming continues to reduce rainfall in their traditional water supply areas.

“Cape Town’s situation really should be a wake-up call for many cities,” said Betsy Otto, director of global water programs at the non-profit World Resources Institute.

Preventative measures

“There are things cities can do right now, and should be doing, to prevent and insulate themselves against a similar fate.”

Otto and other experts say cities must carefully consider their water supplies from the demand side – how much water people use and waste – to the supply side  – how much water the city physically has access to at any given time. Making water supplies more resilient requires foresight, political willpower and – particularly on the supply side – financial investment.

“If something hasn’t got political capital immediately then it really slips off the political agenda,” says civil engineer Holger Maier, who researches urban infrastructure at Australia’s University of Adelaide.

Maier is concerned about how easy it is for governments to put off big water projects until threatened by crisis.

Cape Town’s situation really should be a wake-up call for many cities.

Two factors will determine how vulnerable cities will be to water scarcity in the future: population growth and climate change.

Today, more than half of the world’s 7.6bn people live in cities, and by 2050, the United Nations predicts this will grow to 9bn people —  two-thirds living in cities, with the largest growth expected in Asia and Africa.

Climate change, meanwhile, is expected to shift rainfall patterns, making wet areas wetter and dry areas even drier, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This means relatively dry areas like the southwestern United States, southern Africa, and western Australia will likely see even less rain fill their lakes and rivers. Droughts will probably intensify as well, according to climate scientists in the United States.

“There’s enough water in the world for everyone to have enough to eat and drink,” says Ian Makin, interim deputy director general of the International Water Management Institute, a nonprofit organisation that develops sustainable water use strategies for communities in developing countries.

Water in the wrong places

The problem, he says, is that where and when that water is available “doesn’t match where people want to be”.

Many cities in dry regions rely on snow as well as rain. Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California, for example, is pumped all the way to Los Angeles. But over the last two decades, the amount of spring snow has generally decreased in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the IPCC.

As a result, the western US is already seeing less snowpack and earlier snow melt in the spring. By the end of the century, scientists predict 40% less snow will accumulate each winter in the western US.

Fast-growing megacities in the developing world are likely to have problems first, as urban infrastructure struggles to keep up with booming and “unprecedented” water demand, according to Timothy Williams, director in Africa for the International Water Management Institute.

The time has come to turn words into action

These extreme water shortages can have damaging ripple effects. In Cape Town, Day Zero would have meant people waiting in long lines to receive daily water rations, which officials worried may have sparked rioting.

The ongoing drought in Sri Lanka could be a prelude to severe food shortages. There are major public health concerns, too: if a city cannot deliver water, people may turn to unsafe supplies contaminated with diseases such as cholera, typhoid or dysentery. Sanitation systems could break down and cases of dehydration and heat stroke could soar.

Cities can adapt to these strains, says Maier. The first step is to start using water more efficiently –  installing low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads and fixing leaky pipes, says Allan Frei, a climatologist and deputy director of the Institute for Sustainable Cities at CUNY Hunter College. New York City reduced its water consumption from 6.8bn litres a day to 4.5bn litres a day just by plugging leaks and installing low-flow devices, says Frei. “That’s a huge savings.”

Limited impact

But cutting down on wasted water only goes so far. Cape Town won an award for its water conservation program in 2015.

These efforts, while important, did little to help the city in the face of this year’s extreme drought. At some point, water-stressed cities will have to turn to more expensive supply-side solutions, says Maier.

That means building new water infrastructure like desalination plants and water recycling systems – if they can afford them. A desalination plant in Israel, hailed by MIT Technology Review as the “world’s largest and cheapest”, cost $500M (£374M) to construct.

They can also take a while to come online – the Israeli plant started pumping four years after construction began.

It is hard to find the political motivation and financial capital to act against a threat that is still in the future, says Maier. But if cities fail to act now, they could be left out to dry. “I think there’ll be more and more cases like Cape Town where there are crises,” Maier says. “People will start to think, ‘How can we prevent this?’”

  • This feature is provided by Scienceline, a project from New York University’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.