Use every drop: helping water providers fight climate-driven scarcity

Themes: Climate change Non-revenue water Utilities WASH Water
Countries: Madagascar Madagascar-local Mozambique Mozambique-local Zambia Zambia-local

This is the first blog in a series exploring recommendations from WSUP’s new report, The missing link in climate adaptation, released ahead of COP26. Read the full report here:

Recommendation one: Use every drop

For centuries, the world has lived as if water were an unlimited resource. Now, thanks to climate change piling pressure onto rapid urbanisation, we know that water is a precious, finite resource. We need to look after every drop.

One of the defining characteristics about the response to the Cape Town water crisis was the ability of the city authorities to dramatically lower water consumption and use technology to improve distribution of water across the whole network.

The people living in townships surrounding the city were used to water shortages: this was their daily life. But inhabitants in the rest of the city were subjected to the now-renowned Day Zero communications campaign, encouraging citizens to dramatically reduce their consumption. And the campaign worked, with water consumption dropping nearly 60%.

In a context of declining water availability due to climate change – the drought in Cape Town was made three times more likely due to climate change – cities need to place increasing efforts to make the best use of the water that they have.

But cities need to act before they reach the critical point that Cape Town found itself in, and before an aggressive Day Zero-style communications campaign becomes necessary.

Instead, WSUP’s experience is that in many developing country cities, the far less eye-catching work of fixing leaks is crucial.

According to the International Water Association, 5.2 billion cubic metres of water is lost in sub-Saharan Africa each year – the equivalent to 64 litres per day for every person in the region.

In Madagascar, for example, which has been facing a water shortage since the El-Nino induced drought of 2017, the national utility JIRAMA lost enough clean water in 2020 to supply 650,000 people with clean water (based on the World Health Organisation’s 50 litres per day guidance). Given the extent to which climate change is increasing the likelihood of water scarcity – particularly now, with the south of the country experiencing its worst drought for decades – reducing water losses is a high priority. WSUP has worked with JIRAMA for years to build their capacity to identify and fix leaks, as this video shows:

Reduction of leaks can go hand in hand with increasing access to the poorest residents. Annual rainfall has fallen steadily in Mozambique since the 1960s and in recent years the levels in the Pequenos Libombos dam, which serves the capital city Maputo, have fallen perilously low, resulting in water rationing in the city.

In Maputo, the utility Águas da Região de Maputo (AdeM) has introduced a new model with the support of WSUP which involves community-based organisations delivering services into some of the most densely populated low-income communities. The result has been improved customer satisfaction, reduced water losses from leaks, and increased utility revenue which can be reinvested into more service improvements.

Read more about the customer-centric model in Maputo

Digital innovation can play a role in assisting water utilities to monitor water use and wastage. In Lusaka and Maputo, WSUP has been piloting systems designed to continuously monitor water across urban networks. Using intelligent pressure management software, the systems enable distribution of water to be adjusted according to the need, helping improve water reliability and tackle the challenge of intermittent water supplies, which affects over one billion people around the world. The work is being informed by the successes of Cape Town, which introduced pressure management from 2017 to decrease overall consumption as well as reduce the frequency of pipe leaks.

A newly installed bulk meter in Lusaka that improves performance of the water system

But enabling utilities to make the best use of scarce water resources cannot be fixed just by technology. It requires every department in the organisation to be working together towards a common purpose.

The deployment of WSUP’s Utility Strengthening Framework in southern Zambia, where the Zambezi river basin is one of the most vulnerable in Africa to climate change, has been transformational in helping the regional water and sanitation utility develop a plan for using water more effectively.

WSUP Utility Diagnostic

WSUP’s Utility Strengthening Framework

In 2019, the utility’s ability to provide water for the city of Livingstone was seriously affected because its raw water intake from the Zambezi – built way before climate change had become a reality – was only able to abstract minimal amounts, due to river levels falling so low.

As a result of WSUP’s work implementing the Utility Strengthening Framework, Southern Water & Sanitation Company realised the need to improve management of sanitation waste in order to reduce groundwater contamination and facilitate the usage of groundwater, to reduce the reliance on surface water.

Read: Building resilience to climate change: experiences from Southern Zambia

But much, much more needs to be done to enable water and sanitation utilities to respond to the threat of climate change. WSUP is committed to helping our partner utilities across Africa to use every drop of water, using the Utility Strengthening Framework and other tools.

Top image: Resident accessing water at a pre-paid water dispenser in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Brian Otieno