The Swamp Beneath the Sand – Cape Town’s Water Crisis and the Question of Open Data

One thinks of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Cape Town is a city surrounded by water: a peninsula at the southernmost tip of Africa, all around are vast expanses of clear blue and turquoise sea – scenically one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its most striking physical feature is an imposing mountain range rising in the centre of the city, with numerous mountain streams running down it, to eventually drain into the sea. It is associated with water – that is why the Khoisan, the first people of this lovely peninsula called it //Hui !Gaeb,”, the place where clouds gather. Another phrase associated with the early city is its Khoisan description as the ‘place of sweet waters’, hence its choice as a watering place for ships sailing from the East to Europe, the premise for the first colonial settlements.
It is therefore startling to find the city now in a position in which it is threatened with becoming the first major city in the world to completely run out of water. Using disaster rhetoric, the city council has coined the phrase ‘Day Zero’ for the day on which the piped water supply to the city will be turned off, as the catchment areas run out of water, and citizens will be obliged to queue for water at water dispensing sites, each dealing with tens of thousands of people per day, to claim their limit of 25 litres per person per day.
A striking feature of the way this crisis has played out is the extent to which the citizens of the city, who could have expected their elected government, at the different levels – city, provincial and national- to have taken care to ensure that they had adequate water supplies, instead found themselves, as consumers, cast as the villains. The citizens of the city were subjected to a sustained rhetoric of vilification for reckless consumption of water, a startling reversal of the usual order. The problem was, the city government announced, that the wealthy end of the urban community was using too much water, in the prosperous suburban areas which, they said, were responsible for 60% of water use. And in general the wealthy end of the urban population was careless with water, consuming it recklessly. This from a city that has never, for example, encouraged, or provided subsidies for water-saving interventions, like boreholes and well points, or for the installation of rainwater tanks to reduce reliance on potable water use; rather, for a long time it prohibited them.
The residents were by no means blameless in their water consumption habits – it is overdue for much more attention to be paid to the use of what is now a scarce resource and for more attention to water use, first of all through more rational water consumption behaviour, paying attention to its scarcity, but also to more rational water supply systems, for example through the recycling of waste water for non-potable uses. The citizenry has become much more water aware and water consumption had dropped radically, something that will have to be maintained in the water-scarce environment that will now be a permanent feature of life in the city.
The next city tactic was scare language- ‘Day Zero”, with its dystopian vision of a city semi-paralysed by queues of tens of thousands having to queue to lug home a dead weight of water every day in order to stay alive, with major disruption in business and the normal running of the city. Then there was the language of apocalypse: the ‘worst drought in 30 years’ became ‘the worst drought in 50 years’ finally landing up as ‘the worst drought in 1,000 years’ (even though the there are certainly not weather records to be able to make that claim).

So what went wrong? And where does the truth lie?

There were a number of factors that contributed to this dire situation. One was certainly the massive expansion of the city’s population that has taken place over the last decades. But most critical seems to have been the disconnect between the different levels of government, with their different responsibilities for management and distribution of water; an over-optimistic reliance on continuing good rains in spite of repeated warnings to the contrary; the failure to take seriously enough the impact of global warming on the normal weather patterns of a vulnerable region. And an over-reliance on a single form of water source: dams in the mountain range that lies inland of the city and reliance in planning their replenishment on a single source of weather information – the commercial weather reports managed by national government.

One aspect of this disaster that has not been discussed that much by laypeople is the question of weather information and climate data made available for analysis and how this is presented, in order to reduce the level of unexpected crisis. This is critical, as Groundup set out in a Daily Maverick article:

There is nothing better to create trust than availability of data and information, and transparency of how that information is used in the process of planning and decision-making. Importantly, that information has to be understood and internalised. Cognitive psychology and journalistic experience shows that to effectively achieve such a goal, information has to be suitably packaged. It should ideally be visual, interactive, contextualised, and accompanied by a narrative referring to our experiences.

What has probably been most strikingly absent from the discussion of the water crisis between the city and its residents, is this kind of reliable and detailed information, managed and presented in such a way as to encompass constant change. Rather, there have been a series of articles by various commentators and climate and water specialists expressing, as Piotr Wolski does in the Daily Maverick article mentioned above, deep frustration with the failure of information – weather forecasting, rainfall records for different regions over different periods, comparative historical data, or weather data for the appropriate geographical locations that affected water supply. In many cases, it sounds as if the information really needed is scattered all over the place and that the historical records do not cover the same periods from one set of data to the next. Climatic and rainfall data is a national responsibility and one blockage that comes in for strong criticism – for example by the consultant Tian CLaassens – is the fact that the provision of weather data has been outsourced by the national weather department to a commercial unit – WeatherSA – that charges very high fees for the provision of such information. It seems extraordinary that a national weather service should, in a digital age, see something as critical as weather information as something that needs to be a closed IP model used as a profit-making exercise.
The politicians at provincial and local levels responsible for water policy have repeatedly complained that the 2017 long-range weather forecast was for good winter rains, so that they did not think they needed to make contingency plans, assuming the best. In reality, long range forecasts are these days unstable and unreliable and the 2017 forecast was in any event updated not long after the official government forecast in January 2017, with its prediction of good rains. A month or so later, forecasts from other services came in, saying that changing conditions in winds and tides in the Pacific Ocean meant that the pattern of fronts pushing rain along the Cape coast had changed and would pass too far south, bypassing Cape Town, to disgorge rain further up the East Cape Coast. Why did the city and provincial authorities miss this vitally important update, which came in early enough to allow for remedial action? Probably because, if one pays (expensively) for information, the presumption is that this is definitive and reliable. On the other hand, information that is openly available is much more likely to be updated when needed.The question of open information raised by Groundup is therefore critical. Faced with the fluidity and unpredictability of climate change, rigidity is the wrong answer.
Having failed to recognise the instability of weather forecasting, the city faced what came to be called ‘Day Zero’. the day on which the water supply fell so low that the taps would have to be turned off and citizens would have to queue up on a daily basis to collect a minimal water allowance that would be their daily water ration. City managers were scrambling to try to conceptualize this system, but also – on the back foot – to identify and implement alternative methods of water supply to stave off Day Zero. These included drilling into aquifers, of which there are many, but also with many potential ecological issues; wastewater treatment and small desalination plants, also with their risks. However, it is very late in the day to have to start such ventures, against a ticking clock and with the added complication of a national water department that should be providing the financing and capacity to do all this, but which has apparently radically overspent its budget and has no funds to offer. Thus there is a compound failure at different levels of government to fully understand that climate is now about unreliability and change, needing flexible approaches involving open collaboration between multiple partners, powerful openly licensed data systems, with care taken in the provision of uniform protocols and effective metadata for the sharing of information.

It would be interesting to compare this situation in South Africa with the efforts now being made in Canada, which faces floods rather than droughts, to build a wide-ranging collaboration between universities for open approaches to managing the threat that faces them, on the other side of the world. Something for another blog.

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