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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

While Cape Town suffers, lessons for others can be learned

For consumers, preserving water supplies can mean taking simple steps such as having quicker showers and even shopping less

Signage indicating water conservation are displayed on the mirrors in the restrooms on the opening day of the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
Signage indicating water conservation are displayed on the mirrors in the restrooms on the opening day of the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Cape Town has the unhappy distinction of blazing the path to be the first major city to run out of water.

Others in areas where water is scarce, such as Abu Dhabi, can learn from this to avoid the possibility of suffering a similar fate, says Lana Mazahreh, project leader at Boston Consulting Group in Cape Town, who has worked extensively in the region.

"Behaviour change can be challenging, so Abu Dhabi needs to start increasing its citizens’ awareness immediately," Ms Mazahreh says.

Originally from Jordan, Ms Mazahreh is a recognised authority on water management and has consulted across the Middle East. She says countries can protect water supplies through technology such as desalination, new ways to collect water from the air, and new agriculture irrigation techniques. However, she says true change is only possible when everyone gets involved.

"Abu Dhabi needs to ensure its communities, companies, and citizens are aware of just how dry the country is and empower them to do something about it."

Having lived in the UAE, Ms Mazahreh says that "I admire the innovation and future vision of its leaders, [and] I believe citizens need to be involved in this journey as well, starting today. To the residents in Abu Dhabi and the UAE in general: do not wait for Day Zero."

It may seem an obvious lesson – plan ahead rather than simply react to a crisis. Cape Town, however, has demonstrated that hope is a poor substitute for preparation.

For consumers, preserving supply can mean taking simple steps such as having quicker showers and even shopping less; almost 7,000 litres are consumed in the process of manufacturing an average pair of jeans, Ms Mazahreh says.

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South Africa, obviously, needs to actively explore water saving. For instance, exotic plants introduced either deliberately or by accident from around the world grow wild in the country's fertile soil, and many retain more water than indigenous varieties, leaving less for consumption.

Ms Mazahreh says around 1.5 billion litres of water are lost per year due to alien plants in South Africa. That is enough to sustain more than 3 million households of four members each for one whole year, she points out.

"South Africa needs to finance the clearing of alien plants and convert alien plant biomass into a commercial bi-product to sell and finance their ongoing removal."

Local authorities also need to get creative. Ms Mazahreh notes that officials in Melbourne, Australia applied the simple process of offering residents free, water-efficient shower heads which helped drastically reduce the demand per capita in the city.

Meanwhile, as world populations grow, pressure on water everywhere will only increase. Africa's population is expected to double by 2050, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo said in Cape Town in October.

"Africa has around one billion people now so we can expect two billion people by the middle of this century – and 80 per cent of them will be living in cities," he said.

This fast growth in population will put huge pressure on infrastructure such as water provision, a problem with which many African countries already struggle.

South Africa may just be the first of many to face Day Zero - and with less than 80 days before Cape Town taps are likely to be shut off for all but essential services, scientists are scrambling to determine how the crisis will affect their research — and their daily lives, according to Nature, the international journal of science. Information about the amount of water that universities will be able to draw from municipal or private sources, and for how long, is almost non-existent. Local researchers are also concerned about how the water crisis will affect their staff and the city as a whole.

“Science needs a functioning ecosystem,” Musa Mhlanga, a cell biologist at the University of Cape Town, told Nature late last month.

“This is very, very serious.”

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