While reports of cities running out of water worldwide are streaming in, some cities are learning to cope. Somewhat perplexing, these places often also suffer from drought, have to cope with more people and manage with old and creaky pipes.
Yet sometimes, without having to immediately find more water, the people that live there don’t suffer for it. These places have at least one thing in common: they don’t waste the water they already have.
At these cities, the people that manage water, and the people that use it, understand that every drop counts. They try and waste as little as possible, and get as much as possible use out of every drop.
The recipe for success is no secret. In fact, if you dig into the details a little it’s a well known concept. Technically it’s known by the bulky term of Water Conservation and Water Demand Management (WCWDM). I haven’t figured out an easier term for it yet. So let’s just call it the first thing that cities in need of water must do. Often this is the case.
The not-so-secret to saving water
Using less water is crucial for any city that wants to keep taps running during times of drought.
WCWDM has been key to the survival strategies of many placed that have recently experienced extreme drought. Capetonians are champions at it. San Franciscans have been at it for years, and it made all the difference during the previous extreme drought that hit California. Singapore is setting the bar for WCWDM super high. Copenhagen is doing some exemplary work in this area.
Many of these cities are examples of places that are growing, in dry climates and struggling with providing enough water. Yet, they are becoming better places to live due to the successful application of WCWDM. Though I have not dug into the exact mechanics of the concept in São Paulo (yet), it is also mentioned in this article about the mind-boggling experience that this city recently went through when they almost ran out of water.
If done correctly, cities can achieve dramatic drops in the amount of water used in short periods of time. (Check this out, when Cape Town’s overall water use dropped by 55% in a short time, the greatest water saving ever achieved by a metropolitan sized city.)
What exactly is it?
In a nutshell, it’s getting more mileage (the most that you can) out of the water that you already have. It is not a quick fix. It is a long-term approach to managing water, and one that needs a combination of all of the groups of people to work together. Systems that transport the water must be fine-tuned. The political groups that get to decide where the water goes must be on the same page. The mechanics of the system must be made super-efficient.
Saving water like this is a team effort. Really, it takes a village (or a city – the entire city). Second, it calls for change. Then, it needs action.
Perhaps most importantly, to save water, people must think about it differently.
Everybody must understand that when they use water, it has an impact on somebody else. This “somebody” includes residents, farmers and stuff like factories and businesses. Not only does your choice of how you use water have an impact on your neighbours near and far, but it has an impact on the very source of the water. The dams and rivers, and the places where they rest or flow, are all in some way connected to your tap.
You can’t see it, but when you open the tap, you make a change.
A part of WCWDM is being aware of that.
A more official definition would be that it is an integrated approach to water management that aims to conserve water by controlling use, influencing demand and promoting efficient use.
The aims are many.
The aims of WCWDM
One aim is to lose less water. A surprising amount of water gets lost in the system when it travels from the source to your tap. Another aim is to waste less water. A third aim is to protect the source of the water. And then, another is to use water efficiently and effectively once you have it.
Furthermore, the right policies and laws are necessary. You also need money. The leaky pipes need to be fixed, the rest of the water supply system sharpened-up and maintained, new meters might have to be installed, old water-guzzling washing machines replaced, people need to be educated on how to do it all, and so forth.
Then, we will all have to face that water is not free. Today, water has economic value. However, at the same time and as a very baseline, the human right for access to water for everyone, in particular the poor, must be secured.
The gritty details: how cities save water
WCWDM is usually split into two areas. The first is tweaking the water distribution system. The second is influencing people’s demand for water.
The most common actions to tweak the distribution system include:
- Reducing the leaks in the water distribution system: Leaks have to be found and fixed
- Lowering water pressure, to decrease the amount of water flowing out of taps (and decrease bursts)
- Installing meters to curb use or cut water
- Cutting off illegal connections
- Fixing plumbing leaks in households
To decrease the amount of water people want or use:
- Educate and communicate
- Install good plumbing fittings and apply good reticulations design
- Install prepaid meters
- The billing system must work well
- Effective regulations and by-laws must be in place
- Give developers incentive to build more water friendly buildings
- Keep the system operational and maintained
More often nowadays, this also includes creating awareness that industries can use treated, ‘dirty’ water instead of drinkable water for some tasks. Rainwater can also be stored to be used and together with greywater, can be used on your property instead of clean, treated, drinking water.
The potential for a country like South Africa
Various policies state that WCWDM can play a major role in solving South Africa’s water crisis. It even goes further than that. It’s said that WCWDM is necessary to develop key sectors of the economy; to win the battle against poverty and unemployment; and to ensure that the needs of the environment receive due priority.
It can also ease the tensions between essential but competing water users, like agriculture and mining.
To achieve this, the most important sector where WCWDM must be implemented, is municipalities, even though this sector only uses about 23% of the country’s freshwater resources. “The water savings within this sector would go a long way in balancing the demand and supply within catchments” (according the National Water Resource Strategy).
By fixing leaks and getting people to use less water, WCWDM interventions can amount to as much as a 571 billion litre reduction in demand by 2035.
How can this be done? Mostly, by fixing leaks and getting people to use less water. Can this happen, the bulk of this reduction (22 billion litres) is expected to come from the Vaal River catchment, which includes the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg.
What we can achieve if we use less water
According to assessments in 2007, WCWDM has the potential to bring down demand in this catchment by 15% by 2025. This would entail a reduction of water use per person each day from 330 to 290 litres.
Though a vast improvement, this is still considerably more than the international average of 173 litres per person per day. Still, it would already make a big difference to buffer the dire impacts of severe drought.
A case in point is Cape Town, where residents were asked to reduce their water use to a mere 50 litres per person per day, in order to keep the city’s taps running.
Change is possible
Achieving these targets to aggressively reduce water use is entirely possible. However, it will require teamwork and a change in the mindsets of water users.
Still, it has been done before and as such, can be done again. As mentioned, WCWDM is widely recognised as key to the survival strategies of cities that have very recently experienced extreme drought. Even long before the 2016/18 water crisis, the City of Cape Town had been running an award-winning WCWDM programme.
Similarly, San Francisco (California, USA) recently emerged relatively unscathed from extreme drought without tapping into new water sources. Both serve as examples of booming cities in dry climates that are struggling with water scarcity, but emerging stronger due to the successful application of WCWDM.
Want to know how they do it? Read this article on how two cities (Cape Town and San Francisco) save water now, and for the future. And then, read this article on Cape Town’s green dot map. It was key to help drive down residents’ water use during the 2016/18 water crisis.
- The blog is part of an ongoing series tackling the problem of how we will live with less water available to us. The first article looked at how cities developed, and what went wrong. The second, looked at a new concept of development that can help solve our water problems (it’s an overview of Water Sensitive Urban Design and the concept of a ‘livable’ place). The third dug into the details of South Africa’s water crisis (it’s not a pretty picture).
- All of this was written with support from the Water Research Commission (WRC) in South Africa. The series of blogs are excerpts from the book I write for them on Water Resilient Cities.
- National Water Resource Strategy – Water for an Equitable and Sustainable Future, published by the Department of Water Affairs of the Republic of South Africa (June 2013, second edition)
- Parched prospects II A revised long-term water supply and demand forecast for South Africa by Steve Hedden, published by the Institute for Security Studies
- National Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Strategy, published by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (August, 2004)
- Benchmarking of leakage from water reticulation systems in South Africa by RS McKenzie & CJ Seago, 2007 (WRC Report no. TT 244/05)