The imminent shutdown of Cape Town’s piped water network should serve as a wake-up call for all of Africa to overhaul urban water-management systems. Unfortunately, like Africa’s water resources themselves, Cape Town's crisis seems likely to be wasted.
SINGAPORE – About a decade ago, at a meeting of South African mayors convened by Lindiwe Hendricks, South Africa’s then-minister of water and environmental affairs, we predicted that an unprecedented water crisis would hit one of the country’s main cities within 15 years, unless water-management practices were improved significantly. That prediction has now come true, with Cape Town facing a shutdown of its piped water network. The question now is whether African leaders will allow our other projection – that, within the next 25-30 years, many more of the continent’s cities will be facing similar crises – to materialize.
Africa has long struggled with urban water and wastewater management. As the continent’s population has swelled, from about 285 million in 1960 to nearly 1.3 billion today, and urbanization has progressed, the challenge has become increasingly acute. And these trends are set to intensify: by 2050, the continent’s total population is expected to exceed 2.5 billion, with 55% living in urban environments.
The challenge African countries face may not be unique, but it is, in some ways, unprecedented. After all, in Western countries, urbanization took place over a much longer period, and against a background of steadily improving economic conditions. In building effective systems for water and wastewater management, cities had adequate investment funds and the relevant expertise.
In Africa, cities’ financial and management capacities are already overwhelmed. As a result, water and wastewater management has often fallen by the wayside, with policymakers focusing on water-related issues only when droughts and floods occur. The Third World Centre for Water Management estimates that only about 10-12% of Africa’s population has access to adequate domestic and industrial wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal.
Given that the construction of the infrastructure and systems required to meet African cities’ water needs is likely to take some 20-30 years, governments’ sustained commitment is essential. A key imperative is the development of more environmentally friendly systems for wastewater disposal, as is cleaning bodies of water within and around urban centers that are already heavily contaminated.
Such an effort must be based on a comprehensive approach to assessing water quality that covers a wide range of pollutants – far more than the 10-40 that most African utilities now monitor – with the expectation that new pollutants will be added as they emerge. Cities like Singapore now regularly monitor 336 water quality parameters to ensure water safety. To that end, Africa will need access to the relevant expertise, adequate funding, and well-run laboratories – all of which are currently in short supply.
Funding such efforts will not be easy. For one thing, official corruption has long undermined investment in the planning, design, and construction of water infrastructure, as well as the effective management of existing infrastructure. For another, the social value of water – including its central role in many African religions – has long limited governments’ ability to create a viable funding model for water utilities.
Though countries are often eager to trade resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber, and agricultural products, no country in the world sells its water to other countries. Canada approved the North American Free Trade Agreement only after its parliament confirmed that the agreement would not apply to water in its natural state. In federal countries like India and Pakistan, even individual provinces refuse to consider giving water to their neighbors.
Countries don’t make much money from water domestically, either. In 2001, South Africa introduced a “Free Basic Water Policy,” according to which all households, regardless of size or income, receive six kiloliters (1,585 gallons) of water per month at no cost. One might argue that this is because water is necessary for survival. But so is food. And while both water and food are guaranteed in South Africa’s constitution, only water is provided for free.
And South Africa is no anomaly. In most urban centers worldwide, water is free or highly subsidized, and politicians are reluctant to change that. Singapore’s water price did not rise at all from 2000 to 2016, and Hong Kong’s water prices haven’t changed since 1996, even as the price of everything else has risen.
While water obviously shouldn’t become an expensive luxury good, governments’ reluctance to charge appropriately for it has undermined their ability to invest in water utilities, including proper wastewater collection and treatment. Far from leveling the playing field, this has made urban water management in most cities less equitable, because the state is unable to provide the necessary services in an efficient, sustainable, or comprehensive way.
When Cape Town’s water network is shut down because reservoirs have become dangerously low – probably on July 9 – residents will have to stand in line at one of 200 water-collection points, in order to collect 25 liters per person per day. That task will be particularly hard on poor and otherwise vulnerable people.
As South Africa’s politicians and media debate the causes of this crisis, they often focus on climate change – a culprit that cannot talk back. But the fact is that the dismal state of urban water management – exemplified by the fact that 36% of the water in South African cities is either lost due to leakage or not paid for, compared to 3.7% in Tokyo and 8% in Phnom Penh – remains a leading reason for the shutdown.
Managing urban water is not rocket science. Solutions have been well known for decades, and the needed technology, expertise, and even funds are available. What has been missing is political will, sustained public demand, and continuous media scrutiny. Cape Town’s crisis should serve as a wake-up call for all of Africa. Unfortunately, like Africa’s water resources, it is most likely to be wasted.