Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS
Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS

We should always aim to learn from other people’s mistakes and our own successes. But, when we find ourselves in trouble of our own making, we need to learn from the experience, if only to avoid repeating it. Cape Town’s water crisis offers an opportunity for such reflection.

It is an important learning opportunity that shows a lot about the challenges of managing water in our complicated country. It shows what can so easily happen to the biggest cities if details such as the variability and uncertainty of the climate and SA’s growing population and economy are ignored.

A lesson from Cape Town that has already become clear is that it is very difficult to change human behaviour without making fundamental changes in their physical and social environment. People with gardens will water them; those who have toilets will flush them, repeatedly.

I have documented in detail before why the city’s decision to delay investing in more water supply infrastructure and rely instead on demand management was a mistake. It triggered the crisis, helped by a severe but predictable drought.

Disasters will always hit hardest those who are poorly prepared. And in SA’s climate, being prepared means ready to cope with worst-case scenarios, not just the average year’s rainfall.

Predictably and correctly, attention has now turned to managing the consequences of those earlier decisions.

Some key issues are emerging from heated discussions about how to control queues at future emergency supplies (if discipline cannot even be maintained at the Newlands Springs), whether to desalinate and what will happen to sewers when there is no water to flush toilets.

More importantly, people are asking whether the pain is being spread fairly. Why are farmers still using so much water when people’s basic supplies are under threat? And how does the city make up lost revenues caused by people using less water and still pay for expensive desalination and other emergency schemes? From both issues, useful lessons can be taken.

Farmers take the lion’s share of the world’s water. And, yes, agriculture does consume the bulk of the water that is taken from rivers and streams to irrigate crops. What is less well appreciated is that in most countries, SA included, they are the first to have their supplies cut when there is a shortage.

That has already happened in what the technicians call the Western Cape Water Supply System, the interconnected set of four dams and pipelines on which Cape Town and surrounds depend. In this area, farmers use only a third of the system’s water. This use has been formally "capped" since 2011. Most of the rest is used by Cape Town, for domestic water supply, and that is what has been growing.

In the current drought, agriculture has been heavily restricted, taking bigger cuts than domestic users. Restrictions of 30% were imposed in November 2016, and 50% as from September 2017. (Domestic users had 20%, 30% and 40% cuts over the same period). But farmers with perennial crops such as vines and orchards risk losing their whole investment, not just one season’s harvest.

Both the long-term cap and the short-term restrictions are typical of what happens when there is a shortage. Agriculture does indeed consume a lot of water. But it does not get the first bite.

As Francois Molle of the International Water Management Institute explains, farmers get the hyena’s share of the world’s water. The lion’s share goes to thirsty cities, industries and power stations. The farmers take what’s left over.

That’s not going to change. Globally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and other research institutions predict that the amount of water used by agriculture will actually drop by 2050, even as food production rises drastically.

In part, that’s because there is plenty of scope to use water more efficiently, if necessary. A quick inspection of the Western Cape’s vineyards makes the point. The irrigation technology used is already very efficient. This is not because farmers believe that saving water is the right thing to do for society. The calculation is simpler. They know they will not get more water and the only way to expand their production is to better use the water they have.

Even so, although the wine industry’s jobs and economic contribution are important, the main reason that it will continue to get water is that the winelands are integral to Cape Town’s brand — ask any foreign tourist. That’s why, when the state of water supply in the system is discussed, farmers are at the table with the municipalities. They need each other.

The final critical lesson is to take risk seriously and think about water management from a risk perspective. Much water resource infrastructure is simply insurance. It is designed to protect society against a bad drought and is cheap at the price. But insurance premiums are always a grudge payment — until disaster strikes and we need to claim.

Before the crisis, the next increase in water supply was supposed to have come from the Voëlvlei scheme. This will pump water from the Berg River during the winter floods and store it in the Voëlvlei Dam, in case it is needed, offering a small but strategic increase in assurance of supply. This scheme is currently estimated to cost R550m. The City rejected advice to build it in 2015 because of the cost.

If Voëlvlei had been built back then, the city’s residents would now be paying perhaps an extra R40m annually, through their tariffs. The capital cost would not even have entered the budget of either the city or the national government. The government’s water resource developer, the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority would have raised the funds if Cape Town agreed to buy the water — as it already does with water from the Berg River Dam, which Trans Caledon completed in 2009.

Ask Capetonians whether it would have been a good idea to spend the money and the answer will be unequivocal. But Xanthea Limberg, the city’s mayoral committee member for infrastructure, said in 2017 (No shortage of planning, April 24), "it is not practical to ring-fence billions of rand for the possibility of a drought that might not come to pass".

Perhaps the city wanted to show that it did not need the government’s help. But the lessons from Cape Town are simple. Even if you hate your insurance company, bite the bullet and pay the premium. That’s because changing human behaviour is a long-term project and will be achieved only through co-operative, collective efforts. Meanwhile, after the city lions have gorged themselves, they should not begrudge the countryside hyenas a share of the nation’s water.

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane is due to launch a discussion of her Water Master Plan for the country. It remains to be seen whether she has learnt these simple but important lessons.

Muller, a former national planning commissioner, is with the Wits University School of Governance.