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Cape Town water crisis reflects poor water allocation, not just drought

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Jeff Tyson

South Africa’s tourist hub Cape Town is in the midst of a severe water shortage, with officials predicting taps will run dry by April. The shortage comes as widespread drought grips the city, but that’s not the only reason for Cape Town’s water crisis, according to a sustainable water management expert at Cornell University.


Patrick Reed

professor of civil and environmental engineering and a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future

Patrick Reed is professor of civil and environmental engineering and a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. He says poor agricultural water allocation policies are also to blame for the city’s water shortage.

“Over the past decade an increasing number of global cities are struggling with supply failures or limits in their ability to adapt to increasingly severe droughts.

“Large cities constantly struggle with population demands. In many regions weak policies for urban - agricultural water transfers and the financial pressures associated with trying to guarantee reliable water supply infrastructure simply exacerbate the combined impacts of population demands and droughts.

“Cape Town is reflective of an increasingly common story — a region where officials bet early that drought extremes will look like historical events and are frozen in inaction because of the political tensions associated with how water is allocated. Conservation measures in Cape Town were implemented well in advance of the present crisis. The potential for a supply failure is as much about agricultural water allocations as it is drought.”


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