As South Africa’s water crisis continues, the nation’s building industry pushes for conservation measures

As South Africa’s water crisis continues, the nation’s building industry pushes for conservation measures


Summer 2018 | Written by Paul Keegan

Above: Dorah Modise is the chief executive officer of Green Building Council South Africa.

At Manfred Braune’s home in Cape Town, South Africa, his two children, ages five and 10, have learned to put a bucket in the bathtub, fill it with water, and wash themselves with a sponge and soap. When they’re done, they use the dirty water to flush the toilet. Mom and Dad limit their showers to one or two minutes. Outside, the family swimming pool has been neglected so long it’s only half full and looks like pea soup. “Our pool is more like a frog pond now,” jokes Braune, chief technical officer and executive director for certifications at the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).

Like all residents of Cape Town, the Braune family is trying to cope with one of the worst water crises ever to strike a major city. A devastating combination of drought, rapid population growth, over-consumption and wastefulness, and political infighting has raised the specter of a once-unthinkable prospect: The city may have to resort to what officials are calling Day Zero, a government-enacted cutoff of the municipal water supply that would necessitate people collecting meager rations of water from government-controlled distribution centers.

Though South Africa is an extreme case, it’s hardly alone. Around the globe, governments are grappling with how to manage their water resources as climate change worsens. In 2015, droughts caused São Paulo, Brazil, to institute daily water shutoffs and California Governor Jerry Brown to order cities and communities to reduce water consumption by 25 percent. From India to China to Australia, water supplies are being threatened as never before, with global demand for fresh water projected to exceed supply by 40 percent in 2030, according to statistics endorsed by the United Nations.

In Cape Town, the arrival of the rainy winter season in May—and outcry from angry residents—convinced city officials to put off Day Zero until at least 2019. But water levels in dams remain perilously low, and the city’s inhabitants are still restricted to 50 liters of municipal water per person per day—about 13 gallons, a fraction of the 80 to 100 gallons of water the average American uses daily. The water shortage has devastated the agricultural sector, causing the loss of thousands of jobs; chased tourists away from Cape Town, normally a popular travel destination; and led Moody’s to consider downgrading the city’s credit rating, which could be catastrophic for the local economy.

Water level at Cape Town’s largest dam, Theewaterskloof Dam, in February of 2018. | Photo: Evan Hallein

Ironically, the prospect of people standing in line, surrounded by armed guards, to collect their daily allowance of water has had many positive effects. It has shocked Cape Town citizens into modifying wasteful habits, inspired innovative acts of artistry—famous musicians produced two-minute “shower songs” to help people time their showers—and led to strict citywide measures like requiring commercial properties to reduce water consumption by 20 percent last year, then 45 percent this year.

As Cape Town scrambles to solve its immediate problems, the crisis has also called attention to the critical importance of long-term water conservation measures long championed by environmental organizations. According to Dorah Modise, chief executive officer of GBCSA, the city’s dire predicament has substantially increased interest in the Council’s Net Zero program, which certifies projects that completely neutralize or positively redress their environmental impact in four categories: carbon, water, waste, and ecology. “In the past, we saw very little interest in ecology and water because most people tend to find energy easier to address with solar panels and so forth,” says Modise. “But now they are really starting to look at things like rainwater systems and alternative irrigation and landscaping for their buildings.”

Real estate developers, shaken by the water shortage, are also taking the long view, finding inspiration in projects like the Estuaries Plaza in Cape Town, which earned a Net Zero Water certification from GBCSA for its sophisticated wastewater treatment and purification system. With three floors of general offices and one level of basement parking, the building uses recycled wastewater from both the facility and the local municipal wastewater treatment plant and purifies it to a potable standard through reverse-osmosis filtration. This water is recirculated throughout the building using copper piping. The result? The building’s potable water consumption was reduced by nearly 90 percent against the Predicted Potable Water Rating Benchmark, a standard used in countries such as Australia and South Africa. With normal demand, the building uses zero potable water from the municipal supply and its overall discharge to the municipal sewer has been drastically reduced.

“Construction of buildings has to adapt and change, and certainly the city is working on that, but national building codes have to change, too,” says Braune, who heads up GBCSA’s technical, education, and certification efforts. “In the meantime, organizations like ours can encourage voluntary certification and the adoption of better standards. Commercial and residential properties can be much more resilient when they’ve already been designed and constructed to accommodate something like this.”

Manfred Braune is the chief technical officer and executive director for certifications at the Green Building Council South Africa.

In the absence of a government standard to measure water and energy consumption, Braune and GBCSA devised a Water and Energy Benchmarking Tool that allows property owners to accurately measure consumption and compare it with other buildings. Property owners use it to make decisions about whether to retrofit, hold, or sell their buildings and can offer the information to prospective tenants or buyers. Meanwhile, GBCSA’s Green Star SA rating tool—which addresses water management, indoor environmental quality, energy, transport, materials, land use and ecology, emissions, and innovation—rewards projects that enact strategies that reduce water use in certified buildings.

“The Green Building Council is taking an incredible leadership position in South Africa,” says Professor Tony Turton of the University of Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, who has studied the water issue extensively. “They are doing what the government really should be doing, like setting up building codes and standards—and those will eventually become the official codes and standards for the whole country. They are way, way, way ahead of the curve.”

Even in the short term, water conservation efforts recommended by the GBCSA and other groups are having a huge impact. Bruce Kerswill, managing director of the Spire Property Group in Cape Town and the Council’s founding executive chair, says commercial property owners are rising to the challenge. “They have switched off taps in their buildings, installed waterless urinals, put in hand sanitizers so people don’t wash with water, and put signs up telling people not to flush unless necessary,” he says. “When it looked like Day Zero might actually happen, people began really thinking about what happens if you can’t flush the toilet. So they began planning to get rainwater tanks and install chemical toilets. A shopping center is simply not viable if the toilets are not working.”

One thorny issue in dealing with South Africa’s water shortage is attempting to figure out the root cause of the problem, as blame has been assigned to everything from drought to climate change to overpopulation. “I don’t know that you can extract any one cause from the other,” says Brendan Owens of the U.S. Green Building Council, who oversees strategic development and integration of the organization’s rating systems. “Population is driving increased use of fossil fuels, which is driving climate change, which is driving extreme weather patterns, which is reducing availability of natural resources like water, which all people need to live. So I don’t know if there’s a way to disentangle problems. But I do think there are on-the-ground solutions to respond to the challenges being faced.”

Bruce Kerswill is the managing director of the Spire Property Group in Cape Town and the founding executive chair of Green Building Council South Africa.

Professor Tony Turton of the University of Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management specializes in water resource management and environmental matters specific to South Africa.

In devising those solutions, Owens says, it’s important to understand that the challenges of each region are different. The United States, with comparatively little water stress relative to South Africa, might place a higher priority on the carbon saved by using water-cooled airconditioning systems while South Africa may opt for aircooled machines that may produce more carbon but use less water. It’s a delicate balancing act because all sides of the equation are critically important. “Places with water stress like South Africa or India have to figure out how to prioritize water efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions in the short term,” says Owens, “while understanding that they are inextricably linked in the long term.”

In South Africa, the government response to water issues has been hugely complicated by politics. South Africa’s African National Congress party (ANC), which has been in power since Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, controls the national government and the supply of water, which the government nationalized in 2002. Meanwhile, the Western Cape province and Cape Town are both run by the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has jurisdiction over local demand. Because the two parties have to work together on common issues like water use, it has created a complex and often clashing relationship, with each side blaming the other when problems arise.

Today’s crisis has been many years in the making. Six major dams manage most of the water in the Western Cape supply system. In 2007, the national government’s Department of Water and Sanitation warned that Cape Town would need new water sources within eight years. So the governing City Council lowered demand by replacing water meters, creating a leak detection system, and offering free plumbing repairs for impoverished residents.

Lines of people waiting to collect natural spring water for drinking in Newlands during the drought in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town’s inhabitants are restricted to 50 liters of municipal water per person per day—about 13 gallons. | Photo: Mark Fisher/

Estuaries Plaza in Cape Town earned a Net Zero Water certification by Green Building Council South Africa. | Photo: Trevor Wilkins

Those measures were successful and may have been adequate with normal rainfall. But a three-year drought, the worst in a century, cut the available water supply by 70 percent and demanded a far more expansive response. As the drought worsened, the national government rejected the provincial government’s request to fund water recycling and other measures and refused to designate the area as a drought disaster area, denying it more funds.

By the time the water crisis hit Cape Town, it was too late for long-range planning, and efforts shifted to emergency conservation measures. In the absence of government leadership, private companies took the initiative, adopting standards like GBCSA’s Net Zero Water certification to give themselves an advantage over competitors, knowing that tenants are more likely to lease space in a building that can withstand severe water shortages. Others adopted sophisticated tools like membrane bioreactor technology (MBR) to help manage their water use. Laundry facilities that require a tremendous volume of water found that, for a relatively low investment, MBR could help them recover 80 percent of the water they used. Such companies are critical for the local economy and public health, as hospitals and hotels rely on them for clean linen. “These companies are not driven by building codes to adopt these technologies, but by self-interest to survive,” says Turton.

For homeowners who had the foresight and opportunity to build a green home, it will be their first line of defense in surviving a municipal water shortage. That’s what Bruce Kerswill did a decade ago, about the time he founded GBCSA. He collects rainwater from the roof and gutters and sends it through underground pipes into ten 5,000-liter tanks on the border of the property, where it’s available for showers, baths, and toilets. Since he has no filtration system, he still uses city water for drinking but easily stays below the 50 liter-perday limits. Even during the drought, enough rain fell during the winter months to keep his water tanks full. He also conserves water wherever possible, using low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets. “It takes about three or four major rainstorms to fill the tanks,” he says, “and when summer comes along we become more stringent in how we use it.”

South Africans who live in nearby settlements are not so fortunate. In clusters of small concrete homes and shacks made of sheet metal, impoverished residents rely on communal taps for their drinking water and would be devastated if dam levels got so low the city had to turn them off. Cape Town’s City Council has said those areas would be among the last to lose water, partly to keep diseases from spreading. But with one of the most unequal economies in the world—and an official unemployment rate of 27 percent—South Africa’s water shortage still has the potential to create a major humanitarian crisis.

As of late May, the situation in Cape Town had stabilized somewhat as precipitation increased with the coming of winter. According to the city’s Water Dashboard website, dam levels were at 21 percent (but only 11 percent of that was usable) and daily water use was holding steady at about 500 million liters, higher than the target of 450 million liters, but well below the 1.2 billion liters it had averaged previously. Nevertheless, a hard fact remains: Cape Town is projected to run out of water within the next year unless there is a significant drop in demand or increase in rainfall.

The Day Zero warning has brought considerable attention to GBCSA as various organizations ask for help in exploring ways to manage their water resources. It has even led to increases in fundraising. “Yes, it has been good in that sense,” Modise says, quickly adding, “but we are not enjoying it.”

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