Change is in your pocket

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Photo credit: City of Cape Town

The Big Debate: Down to the last squeeze

Tanner Methvin, a partner at Impact Amplifier, and Claire Pengelly, a water analyst at GreenCape, discuss the current water crisis, potential business opportunities, and more.

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Tanner Methvin (TM): Our current daily consumption target is 700 million litres per day, compared to the normal usage of 1.2 billion litres (when there are no restrictions).  At the time of going to print with The Big Issue, Cape Town’s dam levels were at 30%. With 10% of the dam levels being unusable, we are expected to run out of water in 102 days. So, what does running out mean? Will there simply be no water in any taps anywhere?

Claire Pengelly (CP): Water shedding is a highly unlikely scenario. An intermittent supply of water creates significant infrastructural issues and does not result in real net savings of water. The city of Cape Town is considering several contingency plans should the rains not fill dams as expected. This includes intensifying restrictions and a reduction of water pressure. We will more likely experience a very low flow in our showers or taps than actual periods of no water supply.

If we still face severe water shortages in a few months’ time, the city will implement emergency schemes to increase the supply of water. These will come from mainly large groundwater schemes, such as the Cape Flats or Table Mountain Group aquifers.

We are likely to squeeze through until the winter rains. But if we have another dry winter and a hot and dry summer, a reduction of demand is not going to be enough. Emergency supplies will need to be sourced.

TM: Our water supply is not getting any bigger, yet our demand is, and will continue to increase as the economy and population grows. With these two fixed realities, how did we not see this problem coming?

CP: The city, in partnership with the Department of Water and Sanitation, who are the custodians of our freshwater resources, produces long-term plans to cost-effectively balance supply with demand.

The city is assured of a supply of 97 to 98% on the existing system. This means in 97 out of 100 years, we will have enough water. In the other two to three years, restrictions will apply. We are now in those two to three years. The last two winters have been the driest in 112 years.  The city is also investing in a water conservation and demand management programme since 2000, which has resulted in lower water consumption compared to 1999, despite our population growth.

However, it is time for everyone to acknowledge that the climate is changing, and the normal rainfall patterns that these models are based on may no longer be accurate. Our water system needs to become more climate resilient, and that means lowering our reliance on surface water. We need to start diversifying our water supplies.

TM: In Cape Town’s complex water puzzle, we have three key players. The annual rainfall, which defines what we have; the city in partnership with the department of water and sanitation, which regulates access, sells and distributes it; and the rest of us who use it. The approach, it seems, is to hold thumbs that the rain will fall, hope that the two in 100 years won’t arrive again, and ask consumers to constrain usage.

Changing human behaviour, however, is a very complex process. The public health sector has realised after many years that giving people information does not change their behaviour. Cigarettes are a perfect example. No amount of information, even a poison label on the packaging, keeps people from smoking.

If you want behaviour to change, the most effective way is to engineer the solution.  Design change in such a way that we don’t have to think about it, it just happens. Asking people to conserve water now that we are in the crisis is hoping for behaviour change without designing a solution. Why has this been the tactic thus far? Why weren’t we forced to cut back a year ago?

CP: Behaviour change has been part of the city’s strategy for the past 17 years, and it has been highly successful. However, this drought has forced water high on everyone’s agenda. It is an ideal opportunity to consider just how valuable and important water is for our communities and economy.

Water is considered free, yet it’s an expensive resource to capture, store, transport, treat and manage. Generally, water is underpriced and many city residents have, until recently, been completely unaware of what their water bill is. It was seen as a negligible amount in comparison to rates and electricity. Awareness is growing that water is vital, and not having adequate supplies of it can have dire consequences.

We need to shift our thinking from crisis- to opportunity-mode. We need to consider how to best mobilise investment from the private sector: households and businesses.Let’s move away from the tactic of scaring people, and towards responsible citizenship.

TM: I previously served as director of sustainable development for a wine, leisure, property and farming consortium. In its collective series of buildings, grounds and businesses, the consortium used water and produced liquid waste equivalent to a 40 000-person town. We assessed all our water consumption and effluent sources and retrofitted every sink, toilet, shower and tap with water-saving devices. This reduced overall consumption by 32%. In addition, a new wastewater-treatment plant was designed and commissioned, which recycles and treats all the black and grey water, and reuses it on 50ha of gardens and grounds. Within 12 months, the water retrofitting paid for itself in savings. Why aren’t water-saving devices mandatory for every dwelling? This kind of regulation drives industry, but also conserves supply.

CP: There is a perverse incentive in the municipal business model when it comes to the supply of water and some other services. The municipality sells us water and sanitation services. The more we use, the more money it makes. So, unless there’s not enough water for everyone, municipalities will not encourage efficiency measures. This attitude is now starting to change, because of the current drought. Municipal officials are getting to grips with the long-term economic implications of water scarcity, and realising that efficiency measures may have a short-term revenue impact, but are more sustainable in the longer term.

TM: Impact Amplifier has worked with a range of water conservation businesses over the last few years to scale their operations, including innovative effluent treatment processes, recycling effluent for water reuse, waterless urinals and water savings devices for sinks, showers and toilets. A common issue has been market interest. Each innovation has consistently confronted a market with little interest in saving or recycling water. Based on the current water crisis in Cape Town and other parts of the country, has the market finally changed? And if so, where are the potential new markets in the water-conservation sector?

CP: The major piece in the water puzzle is starting to resolve itself – the price. Tariff increases due to water restrictions are starting to bite. This encourages investment in water conservation businesses, and new supply options that were previously unaffordable. We have limited surface water options left in the Western Cape, and are now turning to alternative sources of water such as largescale groundwater exploitation, and bulk reclamation of water and desalination. However, investment in these supplies will need to be paid back by consumers. So we should all expect to pay more for water in future. As an indication, desalinated water costs about eight times more per litre than surface water.  We are going to see major shifts in this sector in the next 10 to15 years due to an increasing awareness of scarcity risks and tariff hikes.

TM: It often takes a crisis to dramatically change our behaviour. However, sustaining this change will happen only if we all actively participate in treating water for what it is: a precious resource. For this to happen, the public sector must raise the price for high volume residential and industrial users, and create a regulatory framework, which encourages conservation and reuse. Business and consumers must prioritise water conservation and reuse by installing water saving and reuse devices and systems. All of this will drive the existing and newly-emerging entrepreneurs in this sector to model, test and implement more creative solutions to save and reuse water. Without this change in our collective behaviour, it is clear that we won’t be able to keep squeezing by in the future.

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