Cape Town nears day zero: Should Latin America be worried?

 Diversification and sustainability are key lessons for Latin American leaders to glean from the South African city’s burgeoning water crisis


Cape Town nears day zero: Should Latin America be worried?

Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, renowned for its natural splendor is rapidly approaching the day it must turn off most of the water pipes in the city. Dubbed Day Zero, July 9th marks the day that South African officials predict the city’s surrounding dams will effectively run dry, suburban water taps will be shut off, and millions of citizens left without running water. As local Cape Town officials and water departments scramble to stretch out the remaining water and devise short-term solutions, Latin America must a keep a keen eye on the unfolding situation, as its regions face increasingly destructive droughts.

Leer en español: Ciudad del Cabo se acerca al día cero: ¿debería América Latina estar preocupada?

Just three years ago, Cape Town stood as a beacon of water conservation and management. In 2015, Cape Town won the ‘Adaptation Implementation’ award from G40—a collection of international cities dedicated to fighting climate change—for its “comprehensive programme of water conservation and water demand management (WCWDM) aimed at minimising water waste and promoting efficient use of water”.

Now, after three years of severe droughts and an influx of residents, water levels in the supplying dams have been decimated. The city gambled its water supply with a crippling reliance on rain collection. Come July, if water levels continue to fall at this rate, nearly four-million citizens will only find water at the city’s two-hundred collection points.

Over the past three years Latin America has also endured extreme dryness drying and growing symptoms of climate change. Deaths from malnutrition have skyrocketed in Colombia due to water access resulting from the country’s worst drought in recorded history. By the end of 2016, over half of Bolivia’s provinces had been affected by a century-worst drought. And just this past year, Peruvian farmers scrambled to reallocate water to over 6,4000 hectares of crops due to water shortages.

Most notably, however, a recent three-year drought sank Brazil—and São Paolo particularly— into its worst water crisis in the past 100 years. São Paolo residents faced daily 12-hour water shut offs and came to the brink of rationing schedule: five-days without water, two-days with water. Children suffered from dehydration and residents resorted to drinking sewage-contaminated water sources. Moreover, Brazil’s drought engendered a two-folded problem due its heavily reliance on hydroelectricity. With 70% of its energy derived from hydropower, millions of citizens simultaneously lost access water and electricity.

Cape Town has accelerated towards similar conditions, and with current forecasts, officials are preparing for even more violent consequences as citizen’s jockey for water. The national government is scrambling to pump more water from the ground and construct desalination plants. However, academics believe water diversification should have begun years ago.

“Cape Town teaches us that water crises are rarely a matter of rainfall,” says David W Oliver, South Global Climate researcher. “And with timely responses to disaster declarations, water augmentation infrastructure could have been up and running already”.

The Brazilian government has ostensibly made huge improvements with diversifying its water sourcing. São Paulo, for instance, rerouted water from nearby river basins, repaired leaking pipes to save 6% more water, and drilled 400 new wells to access groundwater.

However, other Latin American governments continue to remain singularly short-sighted. Colombia, only imposed usage restrictions and invested further in localized rain reservoirs. The Peruvian government invested and distributed in purification tablets, but has not addressed underlying causes and long-term solutions. With dry weather forecasts returning this year, governments should begin preparing long-term solutions to past water problems.

How can Latin America re-imagine its relationship to water? With increasingly erratic weather patterns, how can the region ensure a sustainable future for humanity’s most vital resource? Recent dry years have evidenced the perils of singular water dependence on rainfall. Government institutions must be proactive, rather than reactive. Water sources must be diversified and adapt to the changing global climate. The next several months will certainly be difficult for Cape Town, but its warning shot for coming crises, but hopefully, can be a case study in climate change response for Latin America.


Latin American Post | Jesse Brooks

Copy edited by Laura Rocha Rueda