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Averting the next Cape Town: Water strategy is a shared responsibility

As "Day Zero" approaches for the South African city, here are six essential steps for addressing scarcity.

How does a city run out of water?

The answer to this question can be found in Cape Town, South Africa, currently in danger of doing exactly that.

How did Cape Town get to the point where it had to plan for "Day Zero," when extreme restrictions on access to water will be enforced? We don't pretend to know all of the details as to how a metropolitan area of nearly 4 million people managed to become "the first major city in the modern era to face the threat of running out of drinking water." What we do know, however, is that Cape Town is not alone, with a recent report exposing 11 other cities at risk. Tragically, we believe this total underestimates the number of cities in peril.

What went wrong? Where to place the blame? More important, how to avoid such problems arising again as access to fresh water becomes one of the dominant public policy issues of the 21st century? While specific local factors may be driving the crisis in Cape Town, the issue is much broader than any one city and speaks to the central role water plays in our lives — a role that is both underappreciated and, as a result, undervalued.

On the surface, the underlying story is about a failure in how the public sector manages water. All too often, public water policy is based upon poor data and information, inadequate public engagement and a belief that the past is a good guide to the future. In other words, water is too often treated as a taken-for-granted asset, rather than a strategic resource for economic development, social well-being and ecosystem health. Where water is viewed strategically, in countries such as Israel and Singapore, water scarcity and stress do not limit economic development and business growth. These countries also turn their investments in water technology innovation into an export initiative (WATEC and Singapore World Water Week, respectively).

We are all ultimately accountable for this shared resource, both to each other and to future generations counting on us to get this right.
In thinking through the Cape Town crisis, therefore, it is unfair to place all the blame onto the public sector. The story is much more complicated and involves us all. Rather than bureaucrats failing to do their jobs, we see the broader society failing to give the public sector the resources it needs to do the job it is trusted to do. Strategic financial investments are an obvious place to start, but the social contract runs much deeper.

If these fundamental drivers of water scarcity are not addressed, with costs shared proportionately, we hinder the public sector’s ability to ensure water resiliency and security. We know this. The 2018 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report lists the Water Crisis as one of the top five in terms of impact. The key is whether we will act now and plan for the future. At present, we are spectators, watching the water crisis unfold in real time as cities around the world run dry.

In building a solution, we call for a greater role for market forces balanced with regulatory oversight. In particular, the private sector has an essential role to play in devising technology and infrastructure solutions. But we have to incentivize companies to develop these solutions and then reward those that succeed. We applaud the initiatives of companies such as Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages, ABInBev and others, but we need much more.

Ultimately, water scarcity is a challenge for society as a whole, which needs to gather the will to develop a strategic water plan to avert the otherwise inevitable "Day Zeroes" to come.

What has to change? Here are six steps that we believe are essential, but only a beginning:

  1. Engagement: If the public is unaware and/or doesn't care, we are destined to see more Cape Towns. It is the responsibility of the public sector to provide access to safe drinking water (SDG 6), but also the responsibility of the public to support such efforts.
  2. Innovation: We need a broader view of innovation beyond technology to include business models, financing/funding, public policy and partnerships.
  3. Scale: Innovative solutions need to be scaled which requires adequate and sustained funding from consumers, government and the private sector.
  4. Pricing: Access to water is not free; it is now a costly necessity. We need to treat it as such by recognizing that access to water requires investment to protect and provision equitably.
  5. Urgency: Voluntary approaches will not address the water crisis. We need regulatory action that fosters innovation and enforces conservation, and does it quickly.
  6. Honesty and transparency: The public sector must acknowledge a new normal and investments are required to ensure access to water. We no longer can blame the weather. As long as we continue to refer to Cape Town as a natural (rather than man-made) disaster, hope will be the best water strategy we can muster.

We have a shared responsibility to manage our scarce fresh water supplies. Self-interest demands that we act. We are all ultimately accountable for this shared resource, both to each other and to future generations counting on us to get this right.

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