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Life after climate change: lessons from Cape Town

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Life after climate change: lessons from Cape Town

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Life after climate change: lessons from Cape Town

The city’s response to a three-year drought offers pointers to the coming ‘new normal’

© Harry Haysom

In the flat where I stayed in Cape Town last month, the bathtub felt like a relic of a lost civilisation. It may never be used again. Beside it was a shower containing an egg timer. The two-minute wash has been standard here since the recent three-year drought. In the city’s public bathrooms, a dribble comes out of the tap. Posters everywhere warn against wasting water.

This is what adapting to climate change looks like. Last year, Cape Town nearly became the first big city on earth to run dry. Daily water rations dropped to 50 litres per person per day, with the spectre of 25 litres if supplies ran out on “Day Zero”.

The drought broke just in time, but the city’s planners now expect permanent water scarcity. Rationing, which initially felt like wartime austerity, has become normal.

We have collectively decided not to stop climate change — carbon dioxide emissions hit a record in 2018 — so the future will be about mitigating its effects. Every region faces its own threat, whether from heat, flooding, drought or hurricanes. Whatever the problem, Cape Town’s glimpse of the future offers lessons for everyone:

An existential climate crisis creates almost instant consensus on action. I didn’t hear anyone in Cape Town dismiss climate change as an elite hobby, or argue against rationing. On the contrary, water was an almost automatic topic of conversation with people of all classes, well ahead of May’s South African elections. The only arguments were about how to access (and ration) water.

Climate change is a class issue. For people who live in shanty towns outside Cape Town without running water, it’s always Day Zero. Yet a crisis was proclaimed only when rich Capetonians and companies were affected too.

The city’s new scarcity has caused some accidental redistribution: the rich pay rising water tariffs, and their swimming pools and baths have become less useful. But they can also afford to install storage tanks and private boreholes (which, essentially, means privatising ground-water). Meanwhile, the higher costs of living in an adapting city may push out the middle classes.

Climate change reorders the economy. The Cape’s poor farmworkers will be hurt by reduced irrigation, writes the FT’s Southern Africa correspondent, Joseph Cotterill. (The great majority of global water use goes on agriculture.)

But adaptation also creates jobs — for technicians who can fix leaky taps and water pipes, and for the medieval-style water-carriers who have emerged around Newlands Spring in Cape Town. There’ll be corporate contracts galore as South Africa renovates its water infrastructure.

Regional and national governments will clash over who should pay for climate change. All the proposed fixes — desalination plants, dams, plugging leaks — cost money. No national government wants to finance one city’s special needs, even leaving aside the complication that the ANC rules South Africa while its rival, the Democratic Alliance, rules Cape Town.

Such stand-offs will mushroom worldwide. Picture Miami asking Washington DC for money after the next hurricane. What almost ­certainly won’t be on offer is international help, given rising nationalism.

There are quick wins. Leo Johnson, of PwC’s “Disruption” practice, says our carbon-reliant economy is so wasteful that, “The fruit is not just low hanging, it’s lying on the pavement in terms of the economically sensible things we can do.”

Cape Town’s farms and businesses have learnt to reuse water. Residents have fixed leaky pipes and taps, and put out tubs to catch rainwater. Richer Capetonians have discovered that cars don’t need weekly washing; that “grey water” from showers or dishwashers is fine for flushing toilets; and that a cover on the swimming pool stops the water evaporating.

Restrictions help, but simply measuring people’s consumption can change behaviour too. Since 2015, Cape Town has halved its water consumption to 605 million litres a day.

But bigger solutions are elusive. Desalination or wastewater treatment is expensive; dams are pointless if there’s no rain; and even when groundwater isn’t contaminated, pumping it out can destabilise a city. Jakarta, Indonesia, is now sinking as its underlying rock and sediment collapse.

The poorest places won’t adapt; they’ll be abandoned. Cape Town is possibly Africa’s richest municipality. It also has a loud voice through local media, tourism and even a comedy show called Day Zero — The Water Shortage Tour.

But poorer towns with bigger problems get less attention. In Hankey and Patensie in the Eastern Cape last year, water was available only for a few hours a day, and Wednesday and Saturday were designated official “washing days”.


In rural Amanzimtoti, near Durban, people went weeks without clean drinking supplies after a water truck stopped visiting, reports the South African public-interest news agency GroundUp. Who will save Amanzimtoti?

Water refugees may flood to South Africa’s last big, wet economy: Johannesburg. That could cause new problems. David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, points out that a million Syrian refugees (fleeing a civil war triggered partly by drought) were enough to scramble European politics. What happens when climate migrations become the norm?

Simon Kuper will appear at FT On Stage, a one-night-only event in London on April 9. To find out more or buy tickets, visit ft.com/onstage

Follow Simon on @KuperSimon or email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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Letter in response to this column:

Cape Town’s water shortage is down to lack of political will / From Robert Gentle, Johannesburg, South Africa

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