The Cape Town lesson: avoiding apocalypse

The headline on this terrific Robyn Dixon piece in the LA Times about how Cape Town staved of a water supply catastrophe has created an unfortunate framing:

How Cape Town found water savings California never dreamed of

One frequent interpretation as it rocketed around water-interested social media was, “We’re pathetic, look how much better Cape Town did compared to us!”

But that’s not the right takeaway, I think. There’s a really important message embedded in this:

High-income Cape Town families have cut their average water use by 80%, according to Martine Visser, director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, while low-income families cut back by 40%. After city residents were restricted to just over 13 gallons per person a day, any household that blew the limit had a water restriction device attached to its pipes by authorities.

The extraordinary savings — in the heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer — put to shame how much water California used daily when its drought dragged into the summer of 2016: 109 gallons per person.

During the devastating 1996-2010 “Millennium Drought” in Brisbane, Australia, daily water use tumbled from 79 gallons per person to just 44 gallons. Impressive, but not as good as Cape Town.

In each case, the cutback is commensurate with the needed response to specific local conditions. In cutting back to 109 gpcd, Californians cut back to the levels needed to respond to their local water supply situations. Things were worse in Brisbane, so residents had to cut back farther. Things were really bad in Cape Town, so they had to cut back a lot.

The message is that, if the need is there, in these modern rich world settings we are able to dial back our water use a lot. The apocalypse is not nigh.

When people have less water, they use less water.


One Comment

  1. I agree. No water at all is the worst. Like when your water system develops a leak after firefighters turn off hydrant, emptying all tank storage on Christmas Eve (personal experience). Or your supply’s chlorine treatment interacts with pipes to make supply undrinkable (Martin County, KY); or chronic infrastructure crumbling in Flint, MI and on Puerto Rico isn’t fixed. Collapsing infrastructure gives the resilient human race fewer options than does having their supply reduced by drought, yet often is overlooked.

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