What the Cape Town water crisis means

By Luke Yewen
Wednesday, 07 February, 2018

What the Cape Town water crisis means

Pool builder and environmental scientist Luke Yewen gives us his take on the impact of drought to the pool industry.

African news doesn’t get much airplay in Australia, but the Cape Town water crisis is generating media interest around the world. How could this tourist gem — the jewel of Africa — simply run out of water? Is it lack of planning, bad management or bad luck? As I write this, the forecast is that the taps of Cape Town will run dry 16 April.

Thanks to the crisis, Capetonians have become the most water-wise city dwellers in the world, slashing water use to 50 litres per person, per day — that’s a four-minute shower.

There is apparently rising panic and residents are being encouraged to dob in water wasters. Lawns and gardens are dying, cars are filthy, people are being asked to flush the dunny only sparingly and municipal swimming pools are closing.

So, where does this leave our pool-building buddies in Cape Town? Not in a good space, I’ll wager. The water-saving rules state: “No filling (automatic or by hand) of private swimming pools with municipal water is allowed, even if the pool is covered. This includes the filling of new swimming pools and the refilling of existing swimming pools after repair work. The use of municipal water for portable swimming pools is also prohibited.”

The National Spa and Pool Institute of Southern Africa has swung into action promoting ‘water neutral pools’ — you know the story: install a water tank, cover the pool, use bore water, recycle the backwash water.

All these initiatives are excellent, yet you’ve got to wonder how a new pool will be received when the neighbour’s garden is dead and the house stinks because they’re not allowed to flush the dunny.

So, what’s the scoop and how did it come to this? Was everyone asleep at the wheel? It seems not, as a University of Cape Town study has found that the drought is a one-in-a-thousand shot. The dams were overflowing in 2014 and no models predicted such an intense drought.

While Capetonians have adapted to being water-wise and the city has acted to introduce legislation and an education program to tighten water use down to a trickle, is it just bad luck? I don’t think so, looks to me like climate change. It seems it’s no longer a ‘maybe’ — it’s real and it’s here. The climate has changed, and will continue to do so.

In Australia, the CSIRO predicts that we will see hotter summers, longer droughts, less rain and more extreme weather events. In short, we will have less water, sometimes a lot less water. And guess what? We’re going to need a hell of a lot more, with metropolitan populations expected to double by 2050 and the demand for water from agricultural and industrial sectors growing. Pressure to deliver water for the environment will also factor in. And don’t think that desalination is the fix-all — with rising pressure on the energy sector, it’s facing challenges as well.

As an industry, we need to get moving. If we want to survive a water-poor future, we need to act now. The pool and spa sector needs to be (what does Turnbull say?) agile and nimble. We need to spend money on this problem. We need innovation, we need data, we need to prove that pools can be a water-neutral asset or — even better — a water harvester. Unless we can do this, I’m afraid the industry will face tough times in the not-too-distant future.

Image credit: © stock.adobe.com/au/tezzstock

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