The city of Cape Town experienced severe water shortages between 2017 and 2018 forcing municipalities to introduce water restrictions to avoid complete dry up of the taps, colloquially dubbed ‘Day Zero’. This served as a cautionary tale to the South Africans to ensure they save and value every drop of water.
According to experts, daily per capita consumption of water in the country stands at around 230 litres. This is significantly higher than the estimated world average of 173 litres and unsustainable.
Dr Kirsty Carden, interim director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Future Water Institute (FWI), has been at the forefront of raising awareness about the responsible use of water across the country.
A qualified applied scientist in civil engineering, Dr Carden was recently awarded a prestigious Senior Fellow Membership in recognition of her 34-year-long career and many contributions to the country’s water sector by the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA).
Shortage of qualified water experts
Dr Carden said her role provides an opportunity for her to effect change by training a new, younger generation of researchers who are passionate about water. She also noted the widespread shortage of well-qualified water professionals who can devise innovative ways of how to implement “water-sensitive cities”.
She said the institute is a cross-disciplinary hub that harnesses water research across all six academic faculties. They envisage a sustainable and resilient water future for the country, building on water-sensitivity principles.
“My role is co-ordinating that research process, encouraging partnerships and participation, and building relationships with provincial and local government and other organisations that can help our research find its way into policy,” said Dr Carden. She said this is very important given the fact that South Africa is a water-scarce country, adding that years of capacity and skills shortages, crumbling infrastructure, huge financial losses and drought, compounded by climate change, have left the sector in crisis.
Enhancing the water sector
Dr Carden’s water career dates back to 1987 when she worked as a pollution control officer at the department of water affairs as a young UCT chemistry graduate. She also had a long stint with an engineering consultancy and this inspired her to complete her PhD in civil engineering at UCT in 2012.
“This exceptional honour is not bestowed lightly, and considers the consistency of support that you have shown WISA over many years. It is, however, not restricted to support for WISA, but also takes note of the contributions you have made to the enhancement of the water sector overall, and the esteem that your actions have brought to the stature of the South African water industry,” said WISA’s board chairperson, Dan Naidoo.
Climate change models
Dr Carden said the country is getting drier, especially in the interior. In the worst-case scenario, temperatures along the coastal areas are predicted to rise between 3°C and 4°C by the end of the century, and up to 6°C inland.
She also observed that further climate models show that the western parts of the country (including Cape Town) will become drier and experience lower rainfall and water availability. Other models suggest that the country’s eastern parts could become wetter. But that rainfall could be more erratic and destructive, with shorter, sharper storms causing flooding, she added.
Building resilient infrastructures
Dr Carden said the country must start building resilient infrastructure and processes to:
- adapt its water management systems
- demand management, leakage reduction, and ‘fit for purpose’ sources (including non-potable water) and
- a new generation of canny water experts.
Catchment-area yields that feed the big dams must be protected, managed and maximised by removing alien vegetation and plantations such as pines from these water-rich zones. Dr Carden believes cities should prioritise ‘urban catchment management’ saying the city of Cape Town does not have systems to capture rain water as most of this flows out into the sea.
“The answer lies in creating water-sensitive, blue-green cities that are more resilient to water scarcity. One solution is to implement sustainable, nature-based drainage systems to filter and clean storm-water, instead of allowing it to escape into the ocean,” says Dr Carden.
She said education is key in changing how people think about water, adding this must begin at school. A good example of this is storm-water harvesting project situated at a detention pond located next to a Mitchell’s Plain private school. “We’re exploring ways to include the learners in our research, bringing them into design activities and working with them to understand how important storm-water is and what it means in an urban environment,” said Dr Carden.
Working with government
She said they have established partnerships with various organisations that provide training and development geared towards identifying processes for water management. Similarly, she said they are working closely with government at local and provincial levels including metros regarding water resource management.