Cape Town shares lessons of record drought

Patricia de Lille, executive mayor of Cape Town. [City of Cape Town]

Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years. Gareth Morgan, trade and investment officer for the city, told EURACTIV.com that the crisis was also an opportunity to seek solutions which could be of use in other parts of Africa.

Since 2001, Cape Town has had a water conservation and demand management policy to reduce the city’s water demand. These efforts have kept overall water demand relatively stable until 2014 when demand started to rise. Due to a combination of lower rainfall in the winter of 2016 and a relatively slow initial governance response to the drought, the city officially declared a water crisis this year.

In early April, Cape Town was down to its last 100 days of water. The water levels in the dams that supply the city had fallen to 20% of their capacity. In response, the city imposed water restrictions. These include stricter limits on residential water use and strongly recommend a limit of 100 litres per person per day. They also include a ban on irrigation, and a 350 litres per day cap on the free basic water allocation for impoverished households, regardless of household size.

Gareth Morgan told EURACTIV on 12 July that currently the dams are now at 25% of their capacity, which marks a recovery, thanks to the rainy season.

But he said the city authorities had to radically re-look their approach to water, because now there was less trust in the previous hydrological model for Cape Town, and there was an acceptance that the city should prepare for an increased scarcity on a more permanent basis.

“So we are taking a resilience approach to water, which means we are going to build a system which is less reliant on surface water, such as dams, and a greater percentage will come from other options, such as re-use of waters,” he explained.

Three weeks ago, the city government put out a request for information from industry for temporary water solutions, such as desalination and reverse osmosis, a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles from drinking water.

That request for information closed on 10 July and Cape Town’s project management team was currently assessing those proposals. The intention is to procure various short-term solutions over the coming weeks, to ensure that extra water is brought to the system, and to hence ensure that no acute water shortages will happen again.

The rainy season is still continuing, but the city authorities do not trust that the dams will be re-filled. The summer season starts around October and the goal is to ensure that the city experiences no major shortages through that season, until the next rainy season next year.

Asked if Cape Town’s experience could be useful for other parts of Africa, Morgan said that the city and South Africa, in general, had sophisticated water systems already, while the challenge in many parts of Africa was far more severe, in terms of setting up the basic infrastructure.

“Cape Town has pretty much 100% access to water for all its citizens. The principle challenge in many other parts of Africa is that they are still trying to solve the access problem, in line with the UN goals,” he said.

But what could be useful for other parts of Africa, he said, were the lessons learned from this process, and specifically the need for increased decentralised solutions, such as using the households’ captured waters rather than potable water for many of their needs. This was something new for Cape Town because previously the city had traditionally relied on large engineering infrastructure, he noted.

“In a few years’ time, we will have a lot more options, and a lot more choice, at the household level, and I do think this might be transferable to other parts of Africa, which may not be able to wait for the large infrastructure projects but could possibly benefit from decentralised options,” Morgan said.

Green financing

Cape Town’s government doesn’t don’t want to put its money in fossil fuel companies but instead wants to invest in green energy and sustainability. EURACTIV asked how the city hopes to achieve this goal.

Morgan said that the city’s first ever green bond was currently at the market. He said it had been approved by Moody’s with an “excellent” rating, and it had also a very good approval from the Climate Bond Initiative.

Green or climate bonds are issued by governments or companies to finance measures to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

“Our intention is to raise one billion Rands, which is approximatively 700 million US dollars, and that will go into various infrastructure projects, which will all be audited by KPMG. So there are genuine projects which are sustainable and in line with what you would expect from a green bond,” the official stated.

The expectation from the bidding process was that it would be oversubscribed, Morgan said, adding: “The interest is really very high to invest in this particular bond. We are really excited, because this is an innovative finance mechanism, and evidently there is interest from the private business to invest in this product.”

Asked what projects would be financed via the green bond, Morgan clarified that this would predominantly be public transport, including electric buses, and water infrastructure.

Morgan explained that the city had strong views against coal.

“As a city, we want to increase our investments in renewable energy, but one of the main problems we have is that we don’t control all the levers that would allow us to do that”, he said.

Divesting from coal

The country’s national electric utility Eskom, run by the national government, produces approximately 90% of the electricity in South Africa and sells this electricity to the municipalities and to big businesses. According to Morgan, the problem with that electricity is that it is predominantly produced from coal. So the intent of Cape Town is, in the future, to procure directly from independent power producers, but the city doesn’t yet have the legal authority to do that. This is why, he said,  the Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille has stated on a number of occasions that her intention is to take the national minister to court, in order to get the ability to procure electricity directly from independent power producers.

“If we can achieve that, we will have greater control over transforming the energy mix of Cape Town,” the city official said. Patricia de Lille recently attended a Brussels meeting of the Global Covenant of Mayors.

EU calls on all cities to join Global Covenant of Mayors

The Commission’s Energy Union chief on Tuesday (27 June) urged all cities to join the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, an initiative which has gained more weight since Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Morgan said that the mayor takes a very strong view that cities are the major drivers of the economy of countries, and hence have a much bigger role in the solutions to climate change.

“The Global Covenant of Mayors is a very good expression of a global organisation which brings together local governments around the world, in order to build a coalition of response. Cape Town, which is in our opinion a progressive, forward-looking city, wants to be part of the leadership of this organisation, and I think we have a particular role in growing membership in the African continent”, Morgan stated, adding: “We are going to further increase our response and we are going to share our experience, and of course learn from others.”

Asked what could be learned from Europe, he emphasised that Cape Town is interested in the experiences in integrated public transport and renewable energy.

“The historical links between Cape Town and Europe are very good. We have very good city-to-city partnerships with Munich and with Aachen in Germany. Both these partnerships have sustainability and climate change as key parts of these collaborations. We are obviously opened to those opportunities,” he said.