How Cape Town found water savings California never dreamed of

A six-car municipal police convoy skidded to a halt outside a Cape Town house, and police leaped from their cars at the offending sight: a trickle of hose water splashing onto a squat red flower.

Resident Mohammed Adhikari looked bemused and a little sheepish as police surged into his house, slapped him with an $87 fine and delivered a lecture. Watering yards with bore water is limited to one hour Tuesdays and Saturdays — and totally banned with tap water. This was a Monday.

Adhikari regarded the new lawn and garden he had just laid. He was unaware of the time limits, he said, adding that he relies mainly on his own well and buys 1.3-gallon water bottles for drinking. “I don’t think people are abusing it. Really, I don’t,” Adhikari said of water. He’s mostly right.

Earlier this year, the Cape Town government predicted the taps would run dry on April 22 — Day Zero. Only 39% of citizens were meeting conservation targets. But Cape Town appears to have narrowly averted disaster by slashing individuals’ average water use by half, an achievement that dwarfs efforts in other drought-prone regions, including California.

High-income Cape Town families have cut their average water use by 80%, according to Martine Visser, director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, while low-income families cut back by 40%. After city residents were restricted to just over 13 gallons per person a day, any household that blew the limit had a water restriction device attached to its pipes by authorities.

The extraordinary savings — in the heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer — put to shame how much water California used daily when its drought dragged into the summer of 2016: 109 gallons per person.

During the devastating 1996-2010 “Millennium Drought” in Brisbane, Australia, daily water use tumbled from 79 gallons per person to just 44 gallons. Impressive, but not as good as Cape Town.

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