“We are cutting trees to save water”

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A man cutting a tree in Cape Town, South Africa

Cutting down trees to save a city from drought might seem like an unlikely plan, but that’s exactly what the South African city of Cape Town has begun to do, after becoming the first global city to approach water depletion.

It’s been three years since she got dangerously close to what has been described as “Day Zero” – the moment when about four million inhabitants would be left without water.

Its existential crisis was triggered by a severe and unforeseen drought that turned all local reservoirs into meatballs.

Today, dozens of chainsaw-wielding teams are trying to protect those reservoirs in an unusual way, cutting down tens of thousands of trees in the surrounding mountains.

It’s a furiously ambitious and strangely counterintuitive battle to limit the impact of climate change.

One recent morning, above a thick layer of fog, two workers abseiled down a steep ravine to remove several isolated pine trees in a stump-strewn area.

Trees in the mountains around Cape Town, South Africa

Non-native trees are responsible for using two to three months’ equivalent of Cape Town’s annual water consumption

“The pines are not native to this area. They consume so much water, much more water than indigenous plants. This is the green infrastructure that we need to fix,” explained Nkosinathi Nama, who is coordinating the work on behalf of the Fund for water of the Great Cape Town.

The non-native pines, initially brought to the region for the timber industry, spread rapidly across the mountains, crowding the much more resilient and less thirsty local wildlife in Cape Town’s catchment areas.

Pines and other alien species such as eucalyptus are now responsible for an estimated 55 billion liters of water per year, equivalent to two to three months of the city’s annual consumption.

“One of the lessons of Day Zero is that our watersheds need to be rehabilitated and restored so they are resilient,” he said.

“People got scared”

The initial five-year project is just one of many responses to the Cape Town water crisis of 2018, as scientists and administrators try to learn from the experience.

In addition to protecting and diversifying the city’s water resources, including tapping underground aquifers and installing desalination plants, the experts also investigated how humans responded to the Zero Day threat in terms of water use. ‘water.

& quot;  Fear works & # x002026;  the city has done well enough to preach the message of water saving, and we have halved our water use & quot;  & quot ;, Source: Siyabonga Myeza, Source description: Environmental Monitoring Group, Image: Siyabonga Myeza

“Fear works … the city has done very well in preaching the message of water saving and we have halved our water use” “, Source: Siyabonga Myeza, Source description: Environmental Monitoring Group, Image: Siyabonga Myeza

“We underestimate the ability of citizens to adapt to a crisis,” said Dr. Kevin Winter, environmental expert at the University of Cape Town.

He points out that the city’s water consumption nearly halved in just three weeks in early 2018, from around 780 megaliters per day to less than 550, before dropping even lower. An extraordinary demonstration of public unity.

“People got really scared … And it had the desired effect,” he said.

Siyabonga Myeza, a community activist who works for the Environmental Monitoring Group in Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town, agrees: “Fear works.

“The thought of running out of water as a city has been quite tragic and very scary and the city has done very well in preaching the message of water saving, and we have halved our water consumption.

“But in the long run we probably need a more holistic mindset change.”

Stop irrigation

Over the years since then, perhaps inevitably, water consumption has increased in Cape Town.

But it remains far below the 2014 peak of 1.2 billion liters per day.

The experience of being forced to save water, or face fines or other penalties, has clearly left a lasting impression on many families.

Theewaterskloof Dam pictured in 2018

Theewaterskloof Dam, Cape Town’s main drinking water supplier, nearly dried up in 2018 – today it’s full

Other lessons include a greater appreciation of the role of agriculture in water management: in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, approximately 70% of water supplies are used to irrigate agricultural land.

Around Cape Town, farmers have decided to completely stop using municipal water for several months.

The Zero Day crisis also underscored the increasingly unpredictable nature of weather patterns in an era of climate change.

By the end of 2018, Cape Town had received more rain than average. Just not during the usual seasons.

Seven-year drought

But as confidence grows that the Western Cape province is now in a much stronger position to cope with future droughts, there is little evidence that other parts of South Africa have learned the same lessons.

& quot;  They built some toilets for us here, but we can't use them because there is no water & quot;  & quot ;, Source: Elsie Hanse, Source Description: East Cape resident, Image: Elsie Hanse

“They built baths for us here, but we can’t use them because there is no water” “, Source: Elsie Hanse, Source Description: East Cape resident, Image: Elsie Hanse

In the much poorer Eastern Cape province, where farmers are struggling to cope with their devastating seven-year drought, the densely populated area of ​​Nelson Mandela Bay is facing severe water shortages that are largely attributed to years of mismanagement and corruption. , and a failure to maintain vital water infrastructure.

“Fortunately, the Cape Town leadership lived up to the occasion. They went out of their way and … they brought people with them and as a result they helped them overcome the problem,” said Mkhuseli Jack, a man. business and opposition politician in the city of Gqeberha.

“Here it’s the other way around because this place is run by very poor leaders. People have reached a stage where they won’t believe anything the politicians here say.”

Gqerberha is now trying to focus minds by warning that her Day Zero could come within months, as taps have already run out in some smaller towns in the province and many neighborhoods are dependent on irregular water truck deliveries by an agency. local charity.

“We haven’t had water for two days. I’m worried about the future because it will get worse and worse. Why?” [the government] He doesn’t take care of us, “said Elsie Hanse, 53, who lives in a shack in a township on the edge of Graaff-Reinet, a small town in the Eastern Cape.

“They built baths for us here, but we can’t use them because there is no water.”

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