Cape Town climate conference kicks off in wake of water crisis

Cape Town climate conference kicks off in wake of water crisis

By Georgina Wade

This week, a major international climate change conference takes place in a city that is dealing with one of the most severe water crises in its history. The Adaptation Futures conference, taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, will host delegates from around the world to discuss how the world can better prepare for climate change and its impacts. The conference has put in place measures to reduce its water demand, but in doing so it has also highlighted the severe inequality in both access to water, and in the ability to adapt to a lack of it.

An El-Niño-triggered drought struck the Western Cape province of South Africa in 2015, resulting in a severe water shortage in the city of Cape Town and the surrounding region. At the start of this year, April 2018 was announced by the government as “day zero” – a moment when dam levels would be so low that they would turn off the taps in the city and send people to communal water collection points. The water shortages are shining a light on South Africa’s already high-income inequality. South Africa has a long history of social inequity, and to this day 10 percent of the population own more than 90% of the country’s wealth.

With the current water consumption limit set at 50 litres per person, surges of spending on personal efforts to counteract the limited water supply are on the rise amongst wealthier residents. One such method is through the installation of a borehole which works by tapping into underwater reservoirs.

Borehole installation in the backyards of the wealthier Cape Town suburbs currently costs anywhere from $6,000 USD, with high demand resulting in a waiting list of requests that can take up to 7 months to fulfil. While borehole use is legal, Level 6b water restrictions currently prohibit the use of borehole water for outdoor purposes and requires that all water use be metered and recorded for availability upon inspection. Additionally, machines that turn moisture into drinking water are costing residents around $2,000 USD per installation. “The lesson here is that you can’t trust the government to provide water for you,” said Gabby De Wet, whose family owns De Wet’s Wellpoints and Boreholes. But where does this leave those that can’t afford to prepare for the worst?

With residents scrambling to find their own private solutions, the availability of options truly boils down to monetary income. And for the poor, it means waiting to see what solutions the government comes up with while contemplating what cuts can be made to weekly food intake in order to buy bottled water.

Although water conservation efforts have pushed back “Day Zero” to 2019, informal settlements on the outskirts of the city are still struggling to obtain clean water to meet their daily needs. For many residents of the city’s low-income townships, water has always been a rare commodity. In Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, it is estimated that around 1.2 million people live in informal housing, relying on communal toilets and drawing water from communal standpipes.

Wealthier residents still use more water

Some say poorer residents are unfairly blamed for overuse of water resources, as concerns rise over water waste. After exploring the distribution of water usage, the Associated Press found that most of the misuse can be attributed to those of the wealthier class. According to water experts, the Cape Town’s poor townships make up 25 percent of the city’s 4 million people yet only use 4.5 percent of the water.

“It has been in the areas where people have gardens and swimming pools,” Kirsty Carden of Future Water Institute said. “They are much more profligate in the way that they use water, because they’re used to the water just coming out of the taps.”

Cape Town’s economy relies heavily on business and event tourism with the city recently crowned by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) as the number one city in Africa for business tourism events. Given that tourism supports an estimated 300,000 jobs in South Africa’s Wester Cape province, visitors avoiding Cape Town due to water shortages would have a significant impact on peoples’ livelihoods.

While additional population pressure from tourists may increase water demand slightly, research suggests that international visitors to Cape Town add a maximum of 1% to the local population during the peak summer season. With short-term and relatively moderate water needs compared to other water consumers, the $3.4 billion economic contribution tourism provides to the province holds a significantly positive impact to Cape Town and the thousands of households it supports.

A climate conference in the midst of a climate crisis

Adaptation Futures 2018 aims to facilitate dialogues for solutions between key actors from diverse perspectives and regions on adaptation efforts linked to sustainable development, investment and planning. With a strong focus on Africa and the Global South, the conference aims to use the Cape Town setting to foreground developing country adaptation issues.

Acknowledging the significant ecological and carbon footprints conferences inevitably have, the organisers have outlined and established methods towards reducing impacts in an effort to ‘green the conference’.

“The organisers of Adaptation Futures 2018 are actively planning to reduce or offset the conference footprint as much as possible,” the website states. “Minimising the conference footprint depends on every single participant and we count on everyone to make this conference notably and visibly environmentally friendly in both word and action.”

The conference venue, the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), has decreased its use of municipal water through rain water harvesting tanks and its own desalination unit, as well as using bottled water for all culinary purposes. Additionally, the CTICC has aligned all its sustainability efforts and commitments with Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards.

The CTICC’s 65,000 litres of rain water storage tanks allow for the reuse of water for all cleaning and maintenance activities inside the centre. Furthermore, the implementation of air-cooling systems that create water from air will allow for the storage of water in the available 10,000 litres of grey water storage tanks. With a recorded 42% saving in water consumption for the first quarter of its current financial year compared to the same period last year, the CTICC’s focus remains on reducing water usage wherever possible and ensuring their events run successfully in a responsible manner.

Each delegate will be expected to adhere to the water restriction of 50 litres per person per day and will be provided with a durable water bottle to be refilled at designated water points. For the 200,000 litres of water expected to be used by 1,000 delegates, Adaptation Futures 2018 will compensate by donating rain water harvesting tanks to a local project that will reduce future municipal consumption.

Emphasising that an offset is not a license to use more water, Adaptation Futures is encouraging all of its delegates to adhere to the stipulated level 6b water restrictions. Additionally, the city of Cape Town will be hosting two sessions on urban water scarcity and delegates will be invited to contribute potential adaptation solutions.

Perpetuating inequality?

While some have raised questions about whether Adaptation Futures should have been moved from Cape Town so as to relieve pressure on water resources, others make the point that the event has an opportunity to bring global attention to climate risks. There is no doubt that the conference has been proactive in reducing the impact of its own water use, however has it done enough to reduce the problem of water inequality in the city?

Hotels in the area are now taking steps to decrease reliance on municipal water supply. South Africa’s biggest hotel group, Tsogo Hotel Holdings, is even building a desalination plant that will help supply its Cape Town hotel with their own water, as well as provide alternative water augmentation. The new plant, will use a considerable amount of energy to produce potable water for some of the wealthiest of Cape Town’s visitors. It risks becoming a totem of water inequality in the city.

Although Adaptation Futures claims it will be supporting a worthy project that reduces municipal water consumption and increases off grid water usage, the details of this project have yet to be published and may not be created in the interest of benefiting the poorer neighbourhoods. Rather than focusing minds on delivering enough water to the city’s central business district, Adaptation Futures should use this opportunity to help finance water efficiency and supply projects that benefit some of these more water-vulnerable communities. Water scarcity will be front of mind for many of the delegates to the conference; to provide city-wide solutions to future climate scarcity, the inequality of the residents’ capacity and capability to take adaptation action must also be a primary consideration.


Acclimatise will be presenting a number of sessions at Adaptation Futures 2018. Our team members John Firth, Laura Canevari, and Virginie Fayolle will be at the conference. Find out where you can meet them by clicking here.

Cover photograph by Mike Peel/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0): Reservoir in Cape Town, view from Signal Hill, taken on 12 June 2014.

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