Water Well Journal Q&A

Published On: July 19, 2018By Categories: Features, Groundwater Quality


Ian Neilson, Cape Town executive deputy mayor

By Thad Plumley

Nearly everyone working in the water industry remembers in January 2018 when officials in Cape Town, South Africa, set “Day Zero” for April 21—the estimated day when the city’s useable water supply would disappear.

Could that really happen, people asked? Could a major city really run out of potable water for its residents?

City officials convinced its residents the threat was real and that efficiency measures had to be taken by everyone. Since establishing the warning, Cape Town’s government and the city’s population of more than 4 million residents have taken incredible steps to conserve water.

The city set a water use limit of 13.2 gallons per person, per day. To put that in perspective, the U.S. Geological Survey states Americans use between 80-100 gallons per person, per day. Cape Town officials also established tight restrictions that included fines, a strategic awareness effort, and a “Think Water” website.

Incredibly, Cape Town officials announced in May the city had avoided Day Zero because of the great buy-in by its people. Simply put, the city is a sustainability success story.

Water Well Journal recently spoke with Cape Town’s executive deputy mayor, Ian Neilson. Ian is a civil engineer with 20 years of experience in water supply and flood management planning. Our discussion covered the city’s conservation efforts, why Day Zero was established, and what can be done in the United States to avoid a similar situation.

 Water Well Journal: Why was the Day Zero warning created?
Ian Neilson: Cape Town was using 1.5 billion liters (396 million gallons) of water in February 2016. By November 2017, the situation had worsened on the back of incredibly low, below average winter rainfall.

At this point, the city started to formalize Day Zero as a concept—emphasis was placed on avoiding it through further reduction in usage. We were however careful to balance out the idea of partnership—that this was a quid pro quo partnership between the city and its residents.

We would ensure we maintain our world-renowned conservation and demand programs, such as leak fixing, and that we’d focus on adding additional water through water recycling, groundwater, and desalinated water in the future, but we needed residents to do their part by reducing consumption further. At this stage, the message was avoidance and what to do to avoid it.

In January/February 2018, the message changed from avoiding to preparation. Day Zero was likely to happen, although it could still be avoided if consumption was further reduced.

This drove consumption down to below 550 million liters (145 million gallons) and further. It was an incredibly difficult decision to make and it was made with the best information we had at hand.

It was thus a message of preparation and avoidance together as we never gave up hope that our residents would give it one last push.

WWJ: The people of Cape Town have responded wonderfully to the conservation efforts suggested by the Cape Town government. What surprises you most by the changes made from the city’s residents?
Ian: The innovation. You should see some of the low-to-no-cost gadgets that residents have devised. For instance, there is one with a soft drink bottle and holes in it, which a resident calculated was sufficient for a shower or for all other hygienic purposes.

Also, the awareness of not flushing the toilet with drinking water. Even if we do lose some converts along the way as the situation improves, I am sure we will retain the majority of these new water ambassadors.

Finally, how much money people will spend if they have it to ensure their services are not disrupted, such as sinking boreholes, buying water tanks, and getting companies to fill it up with non-potable water for usage.

WWJ: What have been the most significant changes? What actions have led to the most water being saved?
Ian: The city has implemented strong restrictions throughout and this has been accompanied with corrective water and sanitation tariffs. Water has always been too cheap. We had to make a plan, as well as we lost so much income from water sales due to the saving efforts of our residents.

Not using drinking water for swimming pools, to water the garden, and not using potable water for flushing toilets have been some of the key behavior shifts.

We have also as a city clamped high users with water management devices, fixed leaks even on private property, and continue to provide assistance to indigent people to ensure water is not lost through leaks.

We have a highly skilled professional staff, including engineers, who have also managed to engineer us out of a crisis. For instance, with our advanced pressure management programs we are saving about 62 million liters (16.3 million gallons) of water per day.

WWJ: Fines were levied to people who broke water-use limits. How effective was this as a conservation tool? Did residents protest the fines?
Ian: Fines were relatively effective; however, the water bylaw requires those who contravene restrictions are caught in the act. Thus, it was quite challenging as one would not necessarily be able to see behind closed doors. However, all high users were classified and monitored manually by the city. It was an extensive exercise of engagement and education. We still continue our water blitzes with law enforcement to catch those in contravention, but also to spread awareness.

WWJ: What things are people doing that still use too much water? What is the government doing to try and curb that use?
Ian: As our winter rain season has landed, and we actually got good rainfall, about 216 millimeters (8.5 inches) in May, residents may be tempted to use more water—longer showers, more flushing. It’s really important that we stick to our targets. We still need to get down to 450 million liters (118 million gallons) to stretch our supplies. We have a winter water saving tip campaign under way. Our communication and awareness campaigns will continue.

WWJ: What is the Cape Town government doing to ensure people will continue saving water months from now since Day Zero has been avoided to this point?
Ian: There are three key focus areas. The first is continued communication and awareness drives. We cannot let this slip. Awareness and visibility remains absolutely key. We will continue to talk to behavioral aspects and a team spirit that we have built.

Also, pressure management programs. We will continue to lower water pressure to reduce water flow and thus to minimize leaks and bursts and water usage. Finally, we’re building resilience through conservation, demand management, additional water supply, and becoming a more water-sensitive city.

WWJ: Why was it important for Cape Town to monitor and then issue the Day Zero warning well ahead of a projected “day without water”?
Ian: We came to the decision that we need to give our residents and businesses a fighting chance and a reasonable window to effect low-hanging adaptation—water tanks, pumps, going off the grid. It was difficult as we also require water usage for income.

WWJ: Sections of the American southwest are struggling with drought and need to conserve water. What advice would you give to local and state governments in the United States, and around the world, to effectively do so?
Ian: Keep water-saving awareness campaigns visible and a non-negotiable part of any demand and conservation program. Ensure that water saving becomes part of the school curriculums.

Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org and on Twitter @WaterWellJournl

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