In South Africa the city of Cape Town is fast approaching “Day Zero.” This is the day when water taps in the seaside town and a major tourist destination will run dry escalating the water problem that has been persistent for three years now.
Officials had predicted that the city will run out of water on May 11, but that date has since been pushed to June 4 thanks to strict water consumption rules that have been implemented.
Cape Town inhabitants have been limited to just 13 gallons of water per day per person, while water use for agriculture has been reduced significantly, says Ian Neilson, the city’s executive deputy mayor.
The coastal city of about 4 million people has now cut its consumption to 526 million litres per day, about half the more than 1 billion litres used two years ago, Neilson noted.
A three-year drought has dropped the water level behind the crucial Voëlvlei Dam to dangerously low levels, and city officials say they’ll be forced to shut off most water taps by June 4.
If Day Zero is reached, the government will set up water distribution points across the city where residents can come to collect an allotted amount. To avoid scuffles over the limited resource, South African soldiers will guard the water collection points.
“We will turn off most taps. About 200 distribution centres will then be established across the city where people will have to go and collect water. A person will only receive 25 liters per day,” says Cape Town’s mayor Patricia De Lille.
But while Cape Town continues to grapple with dire water shortage, experts believe that most African cities are likely to face the same fate.
“Cape Town is not going to be the only city on this continent that’s going to suffer significant water shortage,” Says Jean-Pierre Labuschagne, an infrastructure expert with global accounting firm Deloitte.
In Kenya for instance, Water rationing in the capital Nairobi looms large as the reservoirs holding the city’s supplies continue to drop. Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company now pegs its hopes on the April long rains to continue supplying water to residents. But the rains have been elusive in the past one year.
The city is being supplied with 505,000 cubic metres of water a day, against a demand of 760,000 cubic metres a day forcing the water to ration water through the equitable distribution programme.
The Ghana Water Company on the other hand, announced last month that it would ration water in the capital, Accra, and other parts of the country due to insufficient rain and pollution of water bodies.
“We are sorry to inform the consuming public that the situation has led to intermittent water supply in most cities and towns in the country,” said Stanley Martey, communications director of the national company. The rate of evaporation of water bodies nationwide has become alarming and there will be consequences for some communities, he said.
Water rationing could be a short term measure to manage water crisis in Africa, but for Mr Labuschagne, water infrastructure must be given top priority.
“African cities need to better plan and invest in water infrastructure otherwise the situation will continue to be a perennial one,” he says.
This sentiment is shared by Shainaz Jamal, director of Wettech Africa a firm that specializes in wastewater treatment and recycling.
“Most African countries have not invested substantial resources in water infrastructure. What we have today is basically what our colonial masters left in the 1960’s,” observes Jamal.
Nairobi’s water system for example was planned for a population of about half a million people, but it now has more than 4 million people.
Ms Jamal says that high levels of rural to urban migration had made it hard for many cities in Africa to plan well and expand infrastructure fast enough to accommodate increased numbers of people, most of whom ended up living in informal settlements.
A recent report by the 2030 Water Resources Group showed that water demand could potentially outpace supply by 2030. Factors driving this deficit include expanding urban populations and economic growth.
While boreholes can be good source of water for an ever increasing urban population, the problem is that majority of these boreholes are contaminated and cannot provide safe drinking water. This requires that water from boreholes must be treated before consumption.
For Ms Jamal, wastewater treatment and recycling coupled with effective water management can be a game changer in Africa.
“It means that we can reuse water over and over again. In the final analysis you will discover that households will only use 10% of fresh water on a daily basis which is a good way of water management,” she explains.
If wastewater tretment and recycling is the way to go then African countries can learn from cities such as Singapore which meets 40% of its total water demand with high-quality treated wastewater.
Israel on the other hand may be a desert country with a serious lack of water but the technology of water treatment and recycling has enabled the country reuse 90 percent of the wastewater it generates making it the leading nation in water recycling.
For majority of African cities water harvesting from rains can be the most cheap and viable solution to water problems facing the continent.It is common to see flash floods every year in Africa but the water goes to waste.
African countries suffering or facing water shortages as a result of climate change have a massive potential in rainwater harvesting, with nations like Ethiopia and Kenya capable of meeting the needs of six to seven times their current populations, according to a United Nations report.
Some countries have fronted the idea of building desalination plants to make sea water drinkable but this comes with heavy cost that majority of African countries cannot afford.
Still, large-scale infrastructure can often by-pass the needs of poor and dispersed populations.
Widely deployed, rainwater harvesting can act as a buffer against drought events for these people while also significantly supplementing supplies in cities and areas connected to the water grid
Yet effective water management can help save African countries millions of dollars that can be used in other equally important social economic projects.
“I believe the real problem is the management of South Africa’s water which is affecting the entire country’s water system. The Cape Town situation has laid bare the inadequacies in the country’s water management regimes,”says Magalie Bourblanc a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria.
To effectively manage water, African countries must have the capacity to produce highly skilled water professionals.
“This describes anyone involved in the management of water. It could range from a person who manages a city’s sanitation services to a hydrologist generating data to help guide national water policies,” says Nelson Odume a Researcher at Rhodes University.
For Jamal, over and above enhanced water management African governments must ensure good water Legislation is passed to aid in water policy formulation.
Majority of the legislation that can support water development are either not there or are ignored, says Jamal.
Little focus on water by most African countries has led to small budgetary allocation to research and development. South Africa invests the most of any African country among the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. But even this is still less than 1% of its GDP, well below most other OECD nations.
Indeed, the United Nations observes that the water crisis in Africa is more of an economic problem from lack of investment, and not a matter of physical scarcity.