31A – The day taps (almost) ran out of water in South Africa

Today, Claire Pengelly told us everything about the management of the water crisis that South Africa had to face for the last three years. The GreenCape Organization saw in the drought an opportunity for significant change in the water consumption. Even though the Cape is now out of danger, the audience felt the dramatic tension created by this crisis through Claire’s passionate tale.

How do you make sure that the solutions remain effective at the end of the crisis? that the Cape doesn't suffer from this kind of extreme drought again ?

I think that the key thing is that we have to expect for increased variability in our rainfall and we have to plan for it. And I think that is the recognition that government officials have made as well as the residents within the city.

That kind of planning is starting to take place whereas before you would try and run things as efficiently as possible and you would model your future planning on previous models based on historical rainfalls. […] You can still use those models but you have to assume that things are going to change much more quickly. You need to have extra capacity, because you need to be able to draw on that capacity when you need to.

But you still have to balance it out with the cost of it. You know, we could build desalination that could supply the whole city but that would be incredibly expensive and inefficient.

The other big issue in this crisis is that it was so unexpected, so everyone was running around trying to make things happen as it was happening. Now, the government is developing scenarios around different events that may occur and is starting to plan around it. So we have an idea of what these things look like, and it is not going to be only a drought, it's going to be a flood, it's going to be a fire, it's going to be other natural disasters. We need to start having […] longer-term strategic thinking to this kind of situations.

Where do you get your funding from ?

We are funded by the Western Cape Government, which is a provincial government, and by the city of Cape Town as well as a number of other government institutions and donor organisations such as the World Bank. […] We were very lucky to be well funded, as a consequence all the work that we did with the companies was for free. That means it was so much more accessible and we could things so much more quickly.

Can your solutions be useful to other provinces of South Africa or other countries suffering from drought ?

I think so. The key thing that really came out of it and that I would like to communicate with other areas is to think about the business sector as a key partner in addressing challenges like this. We obviously looked at them at reducing their usage, but when you face a crisis like this, there is a lot of willingness to engage further than simply securing your own supply.

You need to find channels of effectively mobilizing business in a way that is also useful for your own purposes. […] You need to think about them as a partner, try to work with them and collaborate on these problems together.

That's the key lesson that we have to take from this, there are obviously others but that is the major lesson. You need to start seriously thinking about climate change scenarios and thinking through what that looks like. Playing through the ideas in your head and start to actually tease that out in various situations. That would be my advice.

Elsa Touzard