South Africa

Erik Solheim: Cape Town crisis must spur global action on water

Cape Town is in crisis. Prolonged drought, increased demand for water, and a lack of coordinated planning have combined to create a doomsday scenario in which the city is running out of water. The result has been a scramble for a quick fix for an issue that has been years in the making.

It’s time to acknowledge the fact that this is a long-term challenge. Partly because of an unusually long dry spell, and partly because of a lack of information sharing at different levels, Cape Town woke up rather late to the seriousness of its water situation. It can also take some comfort in the fact that it’s not alone.

Living with climate change world means that we can expect to see more abnormal rainfall patterns that we’ve seen the past few years, and that have tested the limits of Cape Town’s dam storage capacity and its annual water allocation plans.

Cape Town is only one extreme example of the struggles that many cities are facing, but it doesn’t have to be this way. As populations grow, their traditional demand for food, energy and drinking water will keep pace, putting increased pressure on the natural systems around them.

Water is needed for just about everything we do, so pressure to develop and feed a growing appetite often translates into actions that ultimately put pressure on water supplies. Activities such as the draining of wetlands, deforestation, over-extraction of groundwater, wastewater production, and increased pollution from agriculture and industry all take their toll.

But much can be done to use water more efficiently, particularly in agriculture, which uses 70 per cent of the world’s easily accessible freshwater. Switching to drip irrigation methods can greatly increase the crop per drop yield. Smarter metering methods can help detect losses in water systems and identify where water flow and water quality are falling outside of normal levels.

At the same time, increased water storage, including rainwater collection, is another important tool. So is the re-use of water. In developing regions – where up to 92 per cent of wastewater currently goes untreated – there are huge gains to be made in global water treatment practices. This, in turn, increases the amount of water that is available for things such as industry, irrigation, or, depending on the treatment level, drinking.

We are working around the world to help countries protect and restore water-related ecosystems so that they maintain their functionality, providing essential services such as water for drinking, agriculture and energy. This requires management plans that take all water-using sectors and needs into account. It also means addressing water equality, water efficiency, and the effects of water-related disasters such as drought and flood.

UN Environment is following the situation in Cape Town with concern – but also with hope. Indeed, the city has the potential to serve as an example for how a major urban area can respond successfully to a major water crisis.

It’s encouraging to see better coordination across water-intensive sectors, such as agriculture and industry, increasing efficiency while decreasing water use. The government is rushing to operationalize desalination facilities that can provide drinking water. And at the same time the city is utilizing policies such as water rationing, fining for overuse, and cracking down on illegal boreholes to encourage individuals to reduce their own household water consumption.

While the road ahead won’t be easy for Cape Town – or any other city threatened by drought – smart water management can help to ensure a sustainable future for their citizens.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on freshwater.

22 March is World Water Day.