Can UCT become a water-sensitive campus?

13 July 2017 | Story Kevin Winter. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

The Western Cape region is in its third year of one of the most severe droughts on record because of successive periods of well below-average winter rainfall, which was first observed in 2015. As a result, there has been a steady decline in surface water storage volumes.

With less than 25% of water in the six main dams supplying Cape Town, compared to 40% at the same time last year, the City of Cape Town is scrambling to avert ‘day zero’ when the taps could run dry. There could be serious implications ahead if there is no significant rainfall over the next two months and if the planned interventions are unable to provide sufficient alternative water supplies.

A waterless city will be a disaster. Thus far, no city the size of Cape Town with similar water infrastructure has run out of water, but accounts from parts of California, and the cities of Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, reveal that it was a close call.

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town authorities have cranked up water restrictions for domestic use from Level 2 in January 2016 to the current Level 4B restrictions with the possibility of further restriction levels to follow. Level 4B prohibits the use of potable water for outdoor purposes and means an increase to the water tariff. Restrictions help to curb excessive water use and ultimately manage what is left in storage, but without rain the current supply will be depleted. What then?

At this stage the City has not announced a plan B.

UCT’s action plan

The University of Cape Town (UCT), with its combined campuses and residences, is one of the top water users in the city. To date, little has been done to raise awareness of water use on the campuses, although some efforts have been made in the residences. As members of the UCT community, we are largely oblivious of water use on the campuses. There is a discord from living in homes where water conservation is being practiced with gusto to moving onto the campuses where water conservation messages and practices are limited.

Part of the problem is that most buildings are not sub-metered, and they are therefore isolated from the bulk water-metered system. There also appears to be no record of an annual water audit that could help to inform water use and management at UCT. In the Green Campus Action Plan (2009–10) various recommendations were made about water resource management at the university, but little progress was made subsequently.

This was largely because access to information on the existing water reticulation system was limited – a situation that appears to remain today. In general, water monitoring remains tied to old analogue devices that are unable to provide feedback at the scale and timeframe that is helpful to users and building managers. A starting point for building a water-sensitive campus is to improve the understanding of the water system and to monitor future progress.

A crisis is an opportunity. UCT has an opportunity to deal with immediate short-term risks, including ways of reducing its water consumption, and to use the moment to develop strategies and plans for improving water management in the long term. The recent announcement of the UCT Water Task Team, under the office of DVC Professor Loretta Feris, is a step in the right direction for guiding and investing in the development of water-sensitive campuses and residences.

UCT will need to take its water use and management seriously, to become more innovative in the reuse of water, and to demonstrate what can be achieved with its current operations and future plans that value the role of a water-sensitive institution in a water scarce region.

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