Drought lessons from Cape Town

South Africans deal with water issues in a very special way. We can learn a lot from them, says Hans Waals, chief executive of the Blue Deal partnership in South Africa.

“It is not where you start, but how high you aim that matters for success.” These words from Nelson Mandela fit perfectly with the ambitious goals of the Blue Deal: to help 20 million people in 14 different countries to have clean, sufficient and safe water.
Strategic consultant at the Dutch water authority Hollandse Delta Hans Waals is chief executive of the Blue Deal partnership in South Africa.

As such, Waals knows how severe the consequences of drought can be. “Like in Cape Town 6 years ago. The city was at a serious risk of running out of water altogether. To avert this catastrophe the city council and water authority started to warn the people. By continuously informing them of the consequences, they succeeded in bringing down household water consumption by more than halve. They did not go from 100 to 0 overnight. They reduced consumption in stages. But they made it. Day zero never came, but it was a close call.”

“Over the years, we have built a good water network in South Africa,” Waals says. “Our contribution is aimed at improving water quality and water availability. We do this, for example, by training managers and maintenance people of sewage treatment plants.”

In South Africa, there are very large differences between the various ethnic groups, Waals goes on. “These are also reflected in the distribution of water. 60 per cent of the available freshwater goes to agriculture and 95 per cent of that goes to rich white farmers. Because of South Africa’s past, other groups have been put at a disadvantage. They do not have the knowledge to stand up for themselves. So stakeholder empowerment and levelling the playing field are very important.”

That is why the South Africans have found a clever way of involving stakeholders in their water management. And the Netherlands can learn a lot from this, says Waals.
“So water authorities organize a meeting 4 times a year, where all stakeholder groups come together and explain what their interests are. Together, they then decide what needs to be done. In this way, they get to know each other and understand each other’s situation better.”

“I once experienced a session like that about the drought in Kwazulu Natal. There were no acute problems yet, but there was the prospect of them. Instead of quarreling about a solution, both industry and agriculture as well as the people of Kwazulu Natal agreed to reduce their water consumption straightaway, so there would be more water left for the really dry period. All groups agreed, voluntarily. I think that’s amazing.”