Why we should all pay attention to Cape Town’s drought

By Dean Muruven, WWF

“…the worst time to respond to drought is in the midst of one. At that point, there are few, if any, good options available to avoid the worst impacts of drought, and combined with enflamed passions and politics, reaching consensus on solutions is nearly impossible.”

This is an extract from an open letter to the US Senate from a coalition of sporting and conservation advocates in 2015 in response to the drought in California. Fast-forward to 2018 and these words sound as if they were written specifically about Cape Town. As a South African, I’ve been following Cape Town’s drought quite closely. In case you haven’t, the city’s water crisis is now so severe that its taps are set to run dry in less than three months.

WWF- South Africa have started releasing “weekly water updates” to help prepare residents for ‘Day Zero’ – the day when Cape Town will become the first major city on the globe to run out of water.

Since the onset of the drought, a lot has been written about the problems that exist in South Africa’s water sector, ranging from the ageing infrastructure, poor governance and the significant funding that will be required to address these challenges. None of these is unique to South Africa and many developing countries are faced with similar if not identical challenges.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of finger-pointing and “I told you so’s” going around Cape Town at the moment, which is typical during a crisis. What is also typical is the fact that Ministries of Water and water utilities in other major cities around the world are looking at Cape Town as a unique case rather than urgently sitting up and reflecting on how the lessons from this crisis should inform their own drought risk management strategies.

Cape Town’s response to the drought has stuck to the traditional, reactive playbook. It is time for cities to transform their approach to drought risk management. We need to move away from an episodic emergency “all hands on deck” approach to a continuous process that proactively manages risk. At the heart of this transformation is the recognition that there are interdependencies between freshwater ecosystems and the well-being of human systems.

A drought advert on a London Bus, UK.

What cities exposed to drought risk should be considering is how to develop a drought-resilient society, where individual needs and ecosystem services are safeguarded and economic impacts minimized during a drought. Obviously, this is easier said than done but taking a proactive approach to drought risk management will at least give us all a chance.

  • Cape Town faces a new normal when this drought breaks. Things will be different for people, the economy and nature. The city will have to change its strategy and so should all other cities at risk from drought. This is as good a time as any for them to review their strategic drought management plans. A good place to start is WWF’s book on strategic drought risk management, produced in collaboration with the General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design (the strategic planning arm of China’s Ministry of Water Resources). It provides insights and distils eight golden rules for making the transition to a drought-resilient society.
  1. Set multiple goals and objectives that promote positive long-term outcomes for society.
  2. Encourage stakeholders from a variety of different sectors and realms to participate.
  3. .Implement a portfolio of measures to prepare for, respond to, and recover from drought and transform society’s resilience to drought.
  4. Utilize limited resources efficiently and fairly to reduce risk and maximize opportunities.
  5. Assess whole system behaviour and associated risks and uncertainties over the short- and long-term.
  6. Communicate risks (and associated uncertainty) effectively and widely.
  7. Understand inherent controversies and trade-offs.
  8. Embed a continuous process of review and adaptation.

These eight golden rules are no silver bullet, but they do provide guidance to help cities and governments develop a more strategic approach to dealing with drought.

But achieving a water-secure future and building resilient societies cannot be done by governments alone. It will require engaged water citizens and an active private sector, which understands and mitigates its water risk by promoting collective action and good water stewardship.

It’s too late for Cape Town. Other countries still have time on their sides.

School girls filling water bottles at a water tap. Water is a threatened resource and with population growth and expanding urbanization the pressure can only increase. For many cities time is running out. Protecting forests around water catchment areas is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Nairobi City, Kenya
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