News Feature | April 6, 2018

How Cape Town Out-Conserved California

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Cape Town was supposed to run out of water on April 22, but an intense conservation effort averted disaster.

The city managed to find water savings that California never even dreamed of, The Los Angeles Times reported. Residents reduced water use by one half, which far outstrips savings in California, the report said.

“High-income Cape Town families have cut their average water use by 80 percent, while low-income families cut back by 40 percent. After city residents were restricted to just over 13 gallons per person a day, any household that blew the limit had a water restriction device attached to its pipes by authorities,” the report said, citing Martine Visser, director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

“The extraordinary savings — in the heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer — put to shame how much water California used daily when its drought dragged into the summer of 2016: 109 gallons per person,” it continued.

Day Zero, the point when the city was expected to run out of water, was “initially set for March.” But it “was pushed to April then to August. Now the city is saying it might not happen this year,” PBS Newshour reported.

So how did Cape Town get it done?

"Everyone wants to be a superhero in the water crisis," said Christine Colvin, Cape Town-based water expert for the World Wide Fund for Nature, per the report. "It's not a result of any one hero. It's a result of agriculture taking a really big hit. It's a result of city engineers fixing leaks and reducing pressure and the willingness of 4 million Capetonians to play their part."

One piece of the puzzle was a major effort to educate the public about water-saving habits, and mass adoption of those habits, the report said. Suggestions included quick stop-and-start showers, the report said. Residents were also instructed to collect their shower water in a bucket to flush the toilet. Setting strict water restrictions and providing vigilant enforcement were other pieces of the puzzle.

Cutting water loss also helped save water.

“Even before the drought, the city cut losses from leaking pipes to 15 percent of water, compared with 37 percent nationally,” the report said.

In addition, outdoor use of water is banned.

“Builders are using recycled or bore water for cement and mortar. Some restaurants have abandoned pasta and boiled vegetables, while others have switched to paper tablecloths and napkins, or reuse water from ice buckets to mop the floors. The city plans to pump stormwater into the ground to replenish aquifers,” the report said.

Visser, the researcher from the University of Cape Town, helped test ways to nudge Cape Town residents to save water.

“High-income families responded best to social recognition, while low-income families responded to reminders about lowering their water bills. A city map used green lights to highlight households that met the targets and, controversially, expose those that did not,” the report said, citing Visser.

Drought, water mismanagement, and politics contributed to the water crisis in Cape Town, according to ABC News.