A silver lining to Cape Town's water woes
The following images tell a story that many miss when talking about Cape Town's water situation.
It is certainly serious but with the significant water saving efforts by local residents, it could be that the worst of the drought is behind us.
How bad is it?
Whatever your view of terms like Day Zero, there is no question that the rainfall in the last three years was very low.
2017 was the lowest on record.
We have had drought conditions not seen since the 1970s.
Cape Town has about 4 million residents. (in 1970 the entire country had about 25 million)
The situation was bad in 2016 and got worse in 2017.
Water stored from rain per year (1928-2017)
Did Day Zero nearly happen?
The forecast in January 2018 was bleak.
It was not known how much water would be used by agriculture or if Cape Town residents would reduce consumption by enough to avoid the 12 April projection that would trigger the Level 7 water conditions.
Had the worst come to pass by 12 April, Cape Town would have become the first major city to run out of water.
Residents did respond though. Agriculture stopped their rate of consumption. There was a welcome water transfer from surrounding areas and engineers improved the means to extract more from the already low dams.
In early March, the forecast had been updated and a water shutdown had been averted for the year.
The situation on 18 May not only shows the move out of the critical zone in March, it even allowed room for optimism.
Cape Town had not only slowed the rate of consumption, the rains had begun.
Update 27 June 2018
Dam storage has increased to 42.7% and the latest graph below indicates a very encouraging increase. Consumption dipped below 500 million litres per day (the target is 450 million) and thanks to the updated graph below the City announced that a "Day Zero" scenario was no longer a threat in 2019.
Keep saving water though, because the new water tariffs kick in on 1 July.
Update 30 July 2018
The total dam storage continues to rise and while it is a better rainfall year than last year it is still not enough to suggest the crisis has passed.
Rainfall is below the long-term average for most of the rainfall areas so unless we get a wet August and September, it will be best to maintain all water savings efforts.
If Cape Town saved water, why is it getting more expensive?
Most of the City's residents came to the party to reduce consumption and many invested heavily in water harvesting and grey water systems to keep their consumption low.
It seemed unfair that those same residents would be hit with a water price increase.
On the face of it, that would be true, but water is not supplied as an income source for the City.
It legally may not use water revenue for anything else. It was also only to be subsidised for those who could not afford it.
Water consumption effectively halved from January 2015 to May 2018. While we celebrate the water saving, there is the issue of how to recover the revenue shortfall.
The cost to run the reticulation system remained the same, in fact, it required more investment.
Not only for the research into alternative water sources but also work to safely reduce pressure and install over 40 000 water management systems to limit excess.
There are about 600 000 installed water points across the City so over 90% are compliant.
Initially, the increase would get more of the revenue from the basic 6 000 litres households typically use. A premium would be paid by those consuming more.
The new proposal lowers the cost of consumption below 6 000 litres and then increases significantly for those using more than 35 000 litres.
You will also have a pipe levy which for most will be either R65 or R115 per month.
What will happen this winter?
Here are three scenarios that will determine how tough it may be to make it through the next summer.
The good news is that even if rainfall is the same as it was last year (the worst on record) it will be possible (only just) to avoid empty taps.
The great news is that if we receive the average rainfall, we will not only miss the Day Zero scenario, we should see the dam levels fill to the 80% capacity mark which would also allow for the current water restrictions to be relaxed.
Unit prices for water will also reduce when water level restrictions are lifted.
The red line is the worst case scenario. Should Cape Town receive half of what fell and was stored last year then we may well be queuing for water despite our water saving efforts.
How are we doing?
To determine what next year holds you need to pay attention to how much falls and is stored now. April was the first indicator to determine what sort of winter we can expect.
April 2014 was the last year where Cape Town got almost the average rain for winter. In 2014 there was 25 - 50 mm of rain over the City and catchment areas.
Last year most areas around Cape Town had under 25 mm in April. 2017 is the lowest on record dating back almost a century.
April 2018 will be an important indicator of what we can expect for the rest of winter.
The City has received over 50 mm, but the catchment areas have not.
It is too soon to tell if we are out of the woods, but with May rainfall also looking encouraging. We may finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of the drought may be behind us.
Update: May rainfall data is encouraging
Each month offers an indication for whether we are going to have a good or bad winter, for now, it appears to be on track to match the long-term average which is good news. This was updated on 12 June 2018.
Does this sound a lot better than the other news around the drought?
The drought is a complex water management story. Coverage tends to reflect on the latest information and less the overview.
We are hoping to balance the criticism with how the City responded to the crisis with a bigger picture to help understand the forecast as they were created with the information that was available at the time.
There are still areas of concern and questions to answer. We will continue to address the concerns and get the answers.
Reading further from the documents that were used to create this will allow for more informed debate.
If you found this useful, please share it with those that may also benefit.
We will continue to update it so bookmark it and check back every month for an update on the situation.