Cape Town Crisis Raises Spotlight on Continent’s Poor Urban Dwellers

Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

In Cape Town, South Africa, residents who take a plentiful supply of water for granted are preparing for massive water shortages in the city.

At some point in May, if water consumption continues at the current rate, the taps in the city will be turned off, leaving residents to access water by visiting one of 200 collection points throughout the city. Capetonians will be then playing a waiting game: hoping for the rains to arrive as soon as possible.

It’s a deep irony. While lack of water access is normally a driver for inequality in cities in developing countries, when the taps are turned off in Cape Town, it will actually become a driver for temporary equality. The rich and poor alike will be limited to the same amount of water per day.

But in Cape Town’s townships, or informal settlements, where around a quarter of the city’s four million people live, standing in line to access water from a standpipe is already a part of daily life.

In the cities where Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) works across Africa, large low-income communities survive without what most of us would consider a basic essential: clean, safe water piped straight into houses.

The impact of water shortages in Africa’s cities is felt disproportionately by the poorest. In Nairobi, for example, which has suffered droughts in recent years, 60 percent of the population already lives without access to a reliable water supply. Instead, they buy water either from illegal vendors; or, if they are lucky, from shared facilities.

When water becomes scarce, the price paid by the poorest for water from illegal vendors skyrockets: sometimes up to 80 times what people with formal connections pay.

So the reality is that the Cape Town crisis is being played out in every city in Africa, every single day.

As climate change increases the frequency of droughts, and urbanization increases the demand for water, we are only going to see more low-income residents face the brunt of water shortages. We need to step up action now to improve availability of water for low-income city dwellers.

The first step to addressing any challenge is recognizing the problem. Cities need to stop thinking about extreme events as unusual and prepare for severe water shortage. Three dry winters in Cape Town was supposed to be a once-in-four-hundred-years event, but it happened nevertheless. The sooner that cities recognize this new reality, the sooner they can start identifying new approaches to improved water management, learning from traditionally water-scarce countries such as Israel, which pioneered the use of drip irrigation technology in agriculture.

Water shortage in urban areas is not just an issue for cities, it’s an issue for the whole water ecosystem. Improving water stewardship is therefore critical, and this requires close collaboration between the government, regulators, service providers, agri-industry and so on. Ensuring that trees are planted rather than destroyed, encouraging farmers to reduce use of fertilizers and minimize sediment run-off, and ensuring sewage is treated rather than dumped into the water system – these are all essential components of improving water security from source to tap.

Clearly water utilities, which have a responsibility to provide a city with safe water, have a major role to play in addressing the challenge. Utilities need to get smarter about understanding water consumption patterns in their cities, introducing district metering areas and using pressure control and GIS technology to better control their operations.

A key strategy we have long advocated for to improve services to low-income residents is improving water availability by cutting losses from leaking pipes, malfunctioning meters and theft. In Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, the city’s utility JIRAMA has been able to improve water availability for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents by reducing losses and therefore releasing water for the residents on the periphery.

Improved financial management within utilities is also vital: A recent World Bank report found that just under half of the utilities it analyzed are unable to cover their operations and maintenance costs through their revenues. It is hard for utilities to prepare for the future if they are unable to cope with the present, although in part this is an issue that national governments could address by altering the tariffs so that utilities are able to charge customers a fair price.

Communities can also make more efficient usage of water, ensuring that limited resources are stretched. Shared facilities can be better designed so that, for example, grey water from a laundry block or captured rainwater is used to flush toilets.

A common pushback against investing in water supplies in informal settlements is the impact that this might have on other areas of a city. This, however, is a non-issue. In Cape Town, the one million residents of townships only use 4.5 percent of the city’s water supply.

Research published by WSUP and the University of Leeds backed this up, forecasting that if yard taps were extended to every single housing compound in Accra, Ghana, this would only result in a two percent increase in water consumption.

Another challenge is the perception that poor people won’t pay for services, and so there’s no business case for a utility.

In fact, the reverse is true: Given that low-income residents already pay far more for illegal water supplies than higher-income residents, low-income communities represent a significant market opportunity for water service providers.

With improved customer management skills, utilities can start to take advantage of this opportunity, helping to ensure that the poorest urban citizens do not suffer disproportionately in an increasingly water-scarce world.


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Trams May Once Again Run Through Rome’s Historic City Center

Piazza Trinità dei Monti (Photo by Piotr)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Rome Plans to Extend Tram Network Through City Center
Wanted in Rome: a more sustainable transportation network. The City Council in the Italian capital released plans last week to build a piece of that network — a tram line that would connect the Roman Forum with Piazza Vittorio via the central-city neighborhood of Monti.

The English-language magazine and website Wanted in Rome reports that the line would be a key element of city plans to create a “new environmental island” — a pedestrian precinct — in Monti. The proposed district has drawn fierce opposition from Monti residents.

The proposed line would run from Largo Corrado Ricci, next to the Forum, to Piazza Vittorio along Via Cavour, Via Giovanni Lanza and Via dello Statuto. A later extension would run from Largo Corrado Ricci to Piazza San Marco, next to Piazza Venezia.

Rome’s transport councillor, Linda Meleo, said work on the line could begin as soon as May 2019 and take 12 to 16 months to complete.

The line is part of a larger “Urban Plan of Sustainable Mobility” being advanced by the transport councilor and the city government, which is run by the anti-establishment populist Five Star Movement.

The city has already committed €5 million ($6.13 million U.S.) towards construction of the 1.5-km (0.93-mile) line but will need a significant infusion of money from the Italian Ministry of Transport to build it:Iit cost €6.6 million ($8.09 million U.S.) to build a 450-meter (0.28-mile) extension of Tram Line 8 from Largo Argentina to Piazza San Marco in 2013.

Meanwhile, Another City Opens Its Second Tram Line
Metro Report International reports that the second tram line in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, began operating on a trial basis on Feb. 3.

The new line runs for 5.1 km (3.2 miles) from the main railway station to Siab Bazaar. Part of the route runs on a separate right of way, and a short 250-m (820-foot) stretch is shared with Route 1, which opened last March.

Service began with trains making four round trips each afternoon, but trains should now be running on a schedule, with service at 7-minute intervals between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

As was the case with Route 1, the tramcars for Route 2 come from an order intended for the Uzbek capital of Tashkent that was shifted to Samarkand when Tashkent shut down its tram network.

National railway UTY built the line in eight months, from last May through January. The depot is still under construction, and trams are using a temporary facility on the site of a bus depot.

New Sydney Metro System Hits Milestone
Global Rail News reports that the first of 22 driverless metro trainsets for the Sydney Metro is undergoing testing in Rouse Hill in advance of the start of service in the first half of 2019.

The current round of tests covers brakes, passenger information displays, lighting and door operation.

“This is a major milestone for Sydney Metro — before long, Sydneysiders will not know how they ever lived without this world-class metro system,” Transport Minister Andrew Constance told GRN.

“The train testing will progressively expand to Cudgegong Road station and on to the skytrain before eventually running through the new twin 15-km (9.32-mile) tunnels between Bella Vista and Epping.”

The A$8.3-billion ($6.5-billion U.S), 36-km (22.37-mile) Sydney Metro Northwest, the initial segment of the Sydney Metro line, will be Australia’s first fully automated, driverless metro rail line when it enters service. Trains on the line, a section of which incorporates part of an existing regional rail line, will operate at 4-minute intervals at peak hours.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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