Dry taps in two Southern African cities tell a worrying story about the failure of public officials to take a long-term view of water supply. But is it their fault alone? Or are citizens failing to hold them to account? And why is the business community, whose board agendas always include a risk-management item, not playing a more active role?

Many Capetonians just can’t wait for winter to arrive this year. It’s not just to get rid of the Gauteng tourists (although more and more summer visitors are escaping from a miserable Europe to take advantage of, for them, our low prices). Indeed, what’s wanted are more black southeasters. That’s not migrants from the Eastern Cape but the winds that, if accompanied by a stray low-pressure pattern, would bring some rain and fill the dams.

Told that there is less than 100 days of water in their dams, the locals can be forgiven for worrying. However, they have made their (dry dam) bed and must now lie in it. This year’s "crisis" has been predicted for at least a decade and they failed to act.

It will rain again in Cape Town, we just don’t know exactly when. Johannesburg went through this recently. My November 2015 prediction that the Vaal system drought would be broken by the remnants of a cyclone from Mozambique was accurate. Sure, it happened in 2017 not 2016, but the dams are now full.

Windhoek, Namibia, has just had a similar experience. In January, residents were told that there was only 30 days of water left in the local reservoirs. After that, there would not even be enough waste water to recycle in their world-famous treatment plant, which turns sewage into drinking water.

Coca-Cola had already shut its canning plant; a local abattoir closed its doors; Namibia Breweries shifted even more production of Windhoek lager to Johannesburg. Things looked grim. And then, at the last minute, it rained. Not a lot, but in March when I visited the Von Bach reservoir, their equivalent of Cape Town’s Theewaterskloof Dam, it was almost 50% full. That will get them through one more season. More important, the crisis has triggered action. Long-postponed plans are now being dusted off to ensure that the city has the resources to meet its growing demands.

Cape Town’s story is almost exactly the same. Ten years ago, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry published a "reconciliation study" to show how Cape Town could get the water needed to meet rising demand. The Berg River Dam, just completed outside Franschhoek, would ensure that the city and surrounds would have enough water until about 2015. After that it would need new sources. More than 20 options were ranked in order of cost and readiness. Various Cape Town organisations were represented in the study team, including metro officials. And the information is on a public website, so no one can claim ignorance.

Unfortunately, projects take time to prepare and they don’t get implemented unless someone takes the decision, blows the whistle and signs the documents. That has not yet happened. Cape Town seemed determined to live up to its laid-back reputation — the feasibility study for the immediate option, to increase the volume of water in the existing Voëlvlei Dam, is apparently "almost ready".

The lack of urgency reflects, in part, officials’ overambitious estimates of how much water could be saved by better water management. This informed the 2012 update of the reconciliation study, encouraged by earnest environmentalists who believed that fixing leaks (and cutting down alien trees that supposedly dry up rivers) could delay the need for new infrastructure. And city politicians were happy to spend money elsewhere and keep tariffs down. But Windhoek and Cape Town both have to supply rapidly growing populations and economies. They also share a region where there is a rare scientific agreement that climate change will reduce rainfall and water availability.

That should concentrate the minds of politicians, business people and citizens in general. But laid-back Capetonians and dour Namibians have a common inability to think about their water futures. In Windhoek, Pierre van Rensburg, an engineer brought in from the private sector a few years ago to fix the city’s infrastructure management, got little support from either city leaders or the water ministry. Desperate for action, he doorstopped new President Hage Geingob, who was convinced.

A crisis committee was established to oversee emergency water-saving measures and a feasibility study is being fast-tracked, around two long-term options — a desalination plant on the coast and pipeline to Windhoek or (the 1974 proposal) extending the Eastern National Water Carrier to bring water from the Okavango River on the Angolan border.

The question is why this experience is so often repeated. If Cape Town was just a refugee settlement for doddery white retirees who trusted their DA administration to keep the taps running, they could perhaps be forgiven. But what have all those commuting captains of industry and assorted sirens of sustainability been doing? Where has the research community been? And what is the point of having Parliament in the city if even the political class doesn’t look after itself?

Since they generally agree that water is important, it must be too complicated for simple leaders, in business or politics. In my experience, they glaze over after the first few slides that outline challenges of uncertainty, risk and probability. "Surely", the thought process goes, "I don’t need to worry about a once-in-50-year drought during my term of office?" They fail to understand that inaction very quickly turns a one-in-50-year risk to one-in-20 years or sooner.

Cape Town is more fortunate since action now could take the city out of the danger zone by 2019

Windhoek faces some real challenges if it has a drought in the next five years, the time it will take to get major new sources into the system. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research warns that restrictions on water use will have to be intensified. Cape Town is more fortunate since action now could take the city out of the danger zone by 2019.

Cape Town’s case highlights the need for greater public engagement with the plans, that are apparently only being discussed in the recesses of Cape Town city hall and the Department of Water and Sanitation in Pretoria.

This challenge has been aggravated by Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who has now become "Mama Inaction". She recently slashed her department’s planning budget, canning, among other things, the consultative committee that was reviewing progress on Cape Town’s supply future.

So, rather than engaging in media-friendly "water-stewardship" activities to pretty up its sustainability reports, business should treat water seriously and put it on board agendas as a substantive item.

Boards must ask: how much water do we have? How much will we need? Who is ensuring it will be available when we need it? If they fail to do this, "water crisis" will appear on agendas and shareholders will hold them to account for its effect on their bottom lines.

• Muller, a professor at the Wits School of Governance, recently visited Windhoek to review the management of the Namibian capital’s water crisis

Please sign in or register to comment.