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What Cape Town can learn from Australia’s millennium drought

lessons learned during Melbourne’s brush with a similar fate may help

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robert99 robert99 Sweden Posts: 1360
1 8 Feb 2018

In December 2017, Seona Candy drove through the vineyards of the Franschhoek Valley near Cape Town towards the banks of the Sonderend river. In the late 1970s, the waterway was dammed to create the biggest reservoir in South Africa’s Western Cape. Behind the thick walls of the Theewaterskloof dam lay the capacity to hold 480 million cubic metres of water, nearly half of Cape Town’s water supply.

“When I got there, it was mostly dust,” Candy says.

Candy, a post-doctoral research fellow in sustainable food systems at the University of Melbourne, was in the city for food security conference. Every conversation, with everyone from other delegates to her Airbnb hosts, turned back to the water crisis.

The city has been in drought since 2015. Its population has almost doubled since 1995, from 2.4 million to 4.3 million, putting pressure on the urban water system. At the end of last year’s dry season, the water behind Theewaterskloof dam was less than 13% full.

Day Zero, when municipal water supplies will officially run out, is looming. The local government say the taps will be turned off on 11 May. At that point, people will only be able to collect a daily allowance of 25 litres from 149 points around the city, marshalled by the police and military.

But experts believe this is a crisis that could easily face other major urban areas with similar population and climatic characteristics to Cape Town.

Cape Town is the canary in the mine,” says Candy.

In Australia, the millennium drought, which parched the country for the first decade of the new century, left cities such as Melbourne a year away from running out of water.

This experience has put the country, and institutions like the University of Melbourne, at the forefront of cross-disciplinary research into water security.

“Experts overseas expect Australia to be one of the first developed countries to be really hit by climate change in terms of drought,” says Candy. “We already have been. The world is watching to see how we deal with climate change – either how badly or how well.”