Drought bulletin: two lessons from Houston

2017-08-31 09:00
Heavy rain overnight caused flooding and closure of sections of highways in the Houston area. (David J Phillip, AP)

Heavy rain overnight caused flooding and closure of sections of highways in the Houston area. (David J Phillip, AP)

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Despite being at the other end of the weather spectrum, the catastrophe in Houston should teach us two lessons for handling our own drought emergency in Cape Town.

The first lesson is that the Texas authorities completely underestimated the extent and magnitude of the abnormal rainfall around Houston, which has now set a new record for mainland America. The debate is underway as to whether climate change is responsible.

However, one point being constantly made is that, whatever the cause, the realms of possibility surrounding what one extreme event can do to a city have widened considerably. The Houston experience is now classified as a one-in-one-thousand year event. It may well prove to be the biggest and most costly clean-up in the country’s history.

Perhaps, with hindsight, there might have been widespread evacuations conducted in Houston in advance of the storm but this will all be the subject of an enquiry in the next few months. The message for us in Cape Town is that we must be prepared for the worst case scenario of the taps running dry and have a set of measures ready to implement in advance in order to alleviate human suffering.

The second lesson is the positive one of how Texans from all walks of life have come together to rescue one another from the rising water. The swollen bayous that have submerged the suburbs of Houston are full of small craft owned by private citizens helping the emergency services. It looks like Dunkirk all over again in Houston. Moreover, the legal consequences for crimes committed during the floods have been raised to deter would-be criminals from taking advantage of the situation.

We must approach the drought with the same attitude in Cape Town. I have heard that affluent people are considering extra security measures to protect their own swimming pools, tanks and boreholes. That may be understandable, but more important is what they are going to do to share their water, money and expertise with disadvantaged citizens who could be desperate. You live for a matter of days without drinking water. As in Houston, the authorities here will also be doing their bit but they will need help.

Moving to the latest figures for Cape Town, the level of the dams supplying the city was 34.2% on 29 August compared to 60.2% last year. The consensus is that we may reach somewhere between 38% and 40% by the end of October if we are lucky. Given the 10% of water which is unusable, Nature’s Gift - a scenario where we are bailed out by abnormal rainfall - is now a wildcard scenario with a very low probability.

Liquid Gold, where we completely change our attitude and behaviour towards water, has been given a boost with last week’s daily production/consumption figure of 599 million litres. While this is still well above the target of 500 million litres per day, it is a step in the right direction as we have been well over 600 million litres in the past few weeks.

The announcement of the city to provide short-term production increases of up to 100 million litres per day through the use of desalination plants among other means is also welcoming, but the timeline for commissioning these plants is a crucial variable. Supposing they start in October, it would mean an extra month’s reserve of water in the dams in March, 2017. That could prove vital to get us through to the rainy season next year.

Dire Straits, a scenario where emergency actions have to be taken to curtail water demand which will inevitably disrupt the lives of ordinary people, is on a par with Liquid Gold in terms of probability. It simply cannot be ruled out; nor can the ultimate scenario of no water at all.

In conclusion, we are at a tipping point and need a community of spirit as wide as a Texas cowboy’s hat to see us through these difficult times.

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Read more on:    houston  |  cape town  |  water shortage  |  drought  |  hurrican harvey

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