Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
climate-changed

The End of Water Comes First to Cape Town

  • South African Tourism CEO sees reduced consumption lasting
  • Expects growth in desalination plants, water-neutral tourism

Water scarcity made worse by climate change is a growing issue worldwide, and no place knows that better than Cape Town, the South African city contending with the worst drought on record, according to Sisa Ntshona, CEO of South African Tourism. The city’s tools for reducing water consumption, though, could be used around the world to preserve limited resources, he said.

Among those lessons: Cape Town residents have learned to shower in 90 seconds or less, and hotels in the popular tourist destination are working on building their own desalinization plants to ensure clean water supplies off the grid. Thanks to lower residential water consumption and a slower rate of decline in dam levels, Cape Town officials on Feb. 20 pushed out the estimated date on which it may have to turn off water supplies to residents by more than a month to July 9. The region’s rainy season, which could provide some relief, is expected to start in May.

How is Cape Town adapting to this drought?

We view the water crisis as not just isolated to Cape Town, it’s a global phenomenon. World class cities, such as Los Angeles, Beijing, Sao Paulo, are going through the same thing and a lot of them have had to put in water restrictions. Right now the world is looking at Cape Town to build some form of a playbook to use in response to a water crisis. This is setting the new norm for our relationship to water. Even if it were to rain buckets tomorrow, we will never consume water the same way again.

What is the immediate focus?

In the short term, we can’t increase our supply of water, but we can influence our consumption. The city’s ’Day Zero’ awareness campaign is targeting Cape Town citizens around how to change their behaviors. If we continue to consume water at the rate we’ve been consuming and it doesn’t rain, at a certain point in time — Day Zero — we’ll hit the 13 percent reserves, and that’s when we’ll need to take more drastic action in terms of how we allocate water.

If you compare this time versus last year, we’ve literally halved the water consumption usage per individual in Cape Town. We want to do more. We want to push that day out so that it falls in the rainy season, from May through July, to give ourselves some buffer.

Is the city teaching people to change their behavior?

Instead of scare mongering, this is a way to say let’s all do our part and conserve water. Changing behavior is not an easy thing. We would have seen it take a lot longer for people to change their behavior if we had the comfort of time. But we are re-calibrating. People got over the initial hurdle of inconvenience and they want to be responsible citizens. Having a manicured green lawn is no longer a badge of honor, it’s something society frowns upon.

Communities are crowdsourcing ideas. We’ve seen various social influences coming in to inform and educate everyone around the water crisis. At the moment, there’s a guideline to restrict shower time to 90 seconds. Famous music artists have come up with songs that are 90 seconds long, so you hit the play button, and by the time the song finishes you’ve got to be out.

Even in areas of the country where there is sufficient water supply the behavior is starting to change. Similar to the way it’s become instinctive to sort recycling, we are doing the same around water consumption. We are learning that the sooner we respond, the more we are able to appropriately manage ourselves out of a crisis.

Has this changed thinking about water long term?

Necessity really drives innovation. We’ve seen inventions around shower heads, for example, and those will live with us forever. The country and city have made investments around desalinization plants. Those have long lead times, but it’s a big focus. We’ve seen some of the big hotel chains are investing in their own desalination plants, effectively taking themselves off the grid so that they can become self-sufficient.

Is this similar to how we think about off-grid solar?

Five years ago South Africa suffered from electricity shortages, and right now we actually have an energy surplus. That’s not because we’ve added more capacity — it’s that we’ve all changed our relationship around how we consume electricity. Energy efficiency has been written into the code for new construction. No new building is going to be approved unless it conforms to energy conservation practices.

Similarly, with water, sometimes you have to be shocked into changing your behavior. New codes are going to be brought in so that buildings become more environmentally friendly and sustainable for the long term.

Isn’t the cost of a desalination much different than solar?

It’s a steep initial investment, but the principle is the same, in that there’s typically a high capital outlay that you recoup over time. The technology is getting cheaper by the day. Because we are in crisis mode, right now it’s about getting it in, investing in it, and taking the cost up front. But as that matures I think you’ll see some interesting funding options around desalinization.

How has the drought affected tourism?

The jury is still out on that. Cape Town is a very iconic destination, not only in South Africa, but around the world. We are still saying Cape Town is open for business. We want to encourage tourists, however we want them to be mindful of the water restrictions and adhere to them.

The tourism sector is very important in the government’s 20-year view of what’s going to shape the economy. Like many other African countries, South Africa has really been reliant on natural resources. Commodity prices, however, are not where they used to be and it’s more expensive to get them out of the ground. So the services sector is quite important as we wean ourselves off of this. In Cape Town alone, 300,000 jobs depend on tourism, so we’ve got to keep this going.

How do tourists reduce their water impact?

This is going to be a new benchmark in terms of the tourist’s footprint on the environment, and how they actually consume water. We’ve seen other sustainability issues like recycling become top of mind across all tourism locations. When you go to a hotel, they ask if you want to hang your towel to avoid washing it.

We host a significant number of conferences, conventions and events. Some of them are concerned about still having their conferences in Cape Town — they don’t want to drain the resources, so they are starting to become water neutral. The drought is isolated to Cape Town. Within a 45 minute drive you can go inland where there is water. So there are some initiatives around trucking in water as a temporary measure.

For the big Cape Town Cycle Tour in March, there are 15,000 people coming to the city for the weekend. That is going to be water-neutral, where all of the contestants will be bringing their own water into the city. Some are even saying they want to make it water positive — by the time they leave, they will leave more water behind than they consume themselves.

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