The rise of social water scarcity

Laura writes*

In 2018 Capetonian dams dropped to 26% of their capacity, signalling a crisis. Now the dams are full, but water remains scarce and the city vulnerable to extreme weather events and physical water scarcity. Cape Town, as one of the most unequal cities in the world, is also facing social water scarcity. It is estimated that one million people, almost ¼ of the population, are using only 4.5% of available water.

The City of Cape Town introduced a “stepped tariff” (increased block rate) which provides the first 10,500 L (the first two blocks) of monthly water use for free to indigent households. However informal housing settlements are not connected to the municipal water distribution system. Without a water connection, those residents cannot redeem the free water.

Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township with a population of more than 2 million [pdf] is facing severe water shortage and inadequate sanitation. Thirty percent of residents live in formal housing (government housing) with in-house water and sanitation facilities, while 70% depend on communal taps and inadequate sanitation. In section QQ (see below), eight standpipes serve 3000 people who, lacking sanitation services, must ask neighbors in formal housing if they can use their toilets. (At night, people have to defecate in buckets they empty into drains in the morning.) Khayelitsha residents face even greater scarcity due to COVID-19 regulations that also make it harder to share facilities. Inadequate sewage disposal also threatens local waterways.

Water, Sanitation and Electricity in Khayelitsha [pdf]
Why is nothing being done?
Townships are frequently expanding, often onto private land. The Water Service Developing Plan (WSDP) specifically distinguishes between private and municipality-owned land [pdf], which means that water and sanitation services are not provided on private land. Private landowners do not step in to fill this gap because they do not want to encourage further invasion of their property. The municipality could buy private land, but money is scarce due to subsidised water prices that can only be sustained with outside funding.

Corruption also diverts funds. Instead of providing informal dwellers with appropriate facilities, the local government has built 40,000-unit middle-income houses in a wetland area, thereby reducing aquifer recharge. This “economic growth” worsens water scarcity and social injustice.

Bottom Line: Cape Town’s corruption, bad financial management and negligence of the poor has left ¼ of the city’s population without adequate access to water and sanitation, exacerbating health threats to residents additionally burdened with COVID.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Naples faces a growing hydrological crisis

Enrica writes*

When one thinks of Naples, one of the most vibrant, cultural and touristic metropolis of Italy, water scarcity is not the first thing that pops to mind. Perhaps one thinks of its complicated, bureaucratic system, or structural corruption and the ever-problematic persistence of organized crime which is increasingly augmenting throughout most of Italy. However, the southern capital of the Campania region of Italy is facing environmental, technical and economic pressures when it comes to its water management.

Water management is an important topic in Naples, where a 2011 referendum led to a public take over of the system. This switch meant that the main water supplier for the one million residents in the metropolitan area of Naples and its surroundings, Acqua Bene Comune (ABC) became municipality-owned, with the establishment of a monitoring committee, a board of directors comprised of users, people working in the organization, as well as members of environmental organizations. The company manages water distribution, including that of potable water and most recently that of sewage systems.


The ABC faces challenges. Old pipelines and treatment systems suffer from leakages, but also service interruptions in the city and nearby regions. Short-term technical adjustments can address urgent issues, but a systematic solution will be required in order to tackle infrastructural problems that are common in Italy, where aqueducts  lose 40% of their water. In Naples, the average citizen uses around 155 liters a day in a system that loses 34% of its water.

The 2017 drought left marks of water scarcity. Climate projections suggest that water management will require substantial improvements in the coming decade, as precipitation decreases. Many economic activities in the region would have been hit by the ongoing climate pressures had these activities not been restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agricultural sector was most profoundly affected in 2017 when the region experienced a shortage in water supply due to decreased precipitation. According to the environmental organization Legambiente, the agricultural sector is inefficient in its water management. Legambiente argues that a potential solution to more efficiently redistribute water and conserve water in the agricultural sector is by shifting towards more efficient systems of micro-irrigation.

Bottom line: Despite its abundance in water, Naples’s water systems face structural problems with old infrastructure, leaks, and falling supply due to decreasing precipitation trends that will only worsen with climate change.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

H2Oh no! Ethiopia’s water crisis

Ruby writes*

Climate change is a growing threat to countries in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). More frequent droughts threaten food security, biodiversity and, inevitably, the water system. Every year, less rain is falling, acting as a push factor for migration, and, according to Murali Pai [pdf], many people own guns and will use them in order to settle water scores.

Addis Ababa is vulnerable to all these threats, and its growing population (increasing at 4.4% per year; also see figure) is worsening scarcity.


Addis Ababa has struggled to secure a regular supply of clean water for over 11 years. The locals mainly get their water from dams and reservoirs – the most common source being the Gefersa Dam, which can supply 30,000m3 of water per day. Total surface water supplies meet 87% of demand, with the other 13% comes from groundwater. The average citizen has access to 35 litres per day after accounting for 35% water losses. This is not a lot if we think about all the water an average European might use per day (drinking, cooking, washing, etc.) Overall, a growing population means more people will need access to potable water, most likely reducing the amount of water an average citizen currently receives per day. Lower water losses could reduce scarcity.

On that note, it might be useful to look at initiatives that address these issues in Addis Ababa. We can all agree that regulation is an important process that can ensure fair water distribution. However, Addis Ababa, being the capital of a poorer country, seems to lack a distinct water regulation system. A dissertation suggests that missing regulation explains why public tap users pay more than users with taps in their homes. It is also states that the water is regulated by a person assigned by the Kebele administration in the city (i.e. the lowest administrative unit in an urban centre). Overall, a lack of a clear water regulation contributes to the water scarcity issues, as not everyone has equal access to clean water.

There is however a distinct water service provider: the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA). This authority aims to provide potable water to the city and to regulate the sewerage system for a sanitary disposal of sewage. They also keep track of information such as the number of households that need water and tariffs of water. If there’s going to be a regulated standard for drinking water in Addis, then AAWSA would be a good place to start.

Bottom Line: Addis Ababa’s vulnerability to climate change and its growing population are not helping the search of solutions for solving the city’s water scarcity issues. Furthermore, the lack of a clear regulation system does not facilitate the problem either. New systems need to be researched and introduced to ensure correct water distribution and use and to reduce water losses as much as possible – the city cannot afford these in this day and age.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Who was responsible for the flood?

Judy writes*

The new year held an awful surprise for many Casablancans: overflowing sewage flooded the streets for several days after heavy rains in the first days of January.

Heavy rains are not a new phenomenon in this city, yet climate change is likely to increase their intensity and frequency and growing urbanization challenges current water systems. The water damage is high and the performance of sewage infrastructure low, citizens are rightfully upset – the question is who should they aim their anger at?

Casablanca’s water systems are managed by the private company Lydec on behalf of the City Council. This delegation and its oversight are formalized in a delegation contract. According to this contract, Lydec alone is in charge of sewage management, and most residents are happy to join in blaming Lydec for the failure.

Casablanca suffered from overflowing sewage after heavy rains during the first week of January

The City Council shared this opinion and hence summoned Lydec to an emergency meeting only a few days after Lydec’s specialized workers and engineers swarmed the city to help people and clean up the disaster.

However, Lydec’s CEO Darriet responded to the ubiquitous cross-fire by claiming that the utility company did not receive sufficient funding to improve the water infrastructure over the last decade, which is additionally strained by boosting population growth. He referred to a flooding disaster prevention plan to strengthen sewage infrastructure, which the company had previously conceived together with the City Council.

Concretely, they had agreed on a joint investment of 17bn Dirham (€1.5bn). Lydec has come up for its due share of 5bn (€0.46bn), but the City Council has fallen short of investing the other 12bn (€1.1bn) so far. Lydec also pointed out that since it became Casablanca’s utility provider in 1997, the company has made cumulative investments of 26bn Dirham (€2.4bn), almost half of which went into sewage infrastructure.

Further, the regulatory responsibility lies with the City Council, which thus needs to question its own role in the disaster, concerning sloppy oversight and especially chronic underfunding. Indeed, said delegation contract seems to be in dire need of an update, filling gaps and using clearer language when it comes to determining responsibilities. A contract revision has been in planning since 2016, yet without success so far.

After the emergency meeting with Lydec, the City Council set up a special committee tasked to follow up and evaluate the causes of the recent sewage system failure, and renewed its pledge to revise the delegation contract.

Lydec at its part, is trying to restore its damaged image and ease the concerned public by pointing at several current and new sewage restauration projects, partially aided with government money, to be completed before end of this year still.

What shall we make of this situation? It that neither of the actors are without fault. There appears to be a serious problem with transparency around this delegation contract (it is hardly accessible at full length for the public), which is not helpful to resolve the responsibility dilemma, let alone to delivering the residents of Casablanca their due functional, future-proof water and sewage system.

We cannot tell yet what the investigative commission will conclude, whether Lydec’s advertised infrastructure projects are really going to be finished by the end of the year, whether the contract will actually be reformed and if so, how, or how much the City Council will invest in infrastructure in the coming period.

What we do know is that effluent management is by far not the only problem Casablanca has to deal with: drinking water provision is high on the (financial) agenda, so high that the government started to construct a 10bn (€0.92bn) desalination plant just to provide for its ‘economic capital’.

The municipality’s priorities are visible in public money flows, and understandably, providing freshwater may be most important. However, instead of spending millions on desalination, the city might rather invest in wastewater recycling, killing two birds with one stone: improving sewage infrastructure and procuring drinking water at the same time.

Bottom Line: Watch what happens as Casablanca addresses scarcity. Citizens should demand a functional, efficient water system. Outsiders can learn from this case.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Marseille’s rainwater problem

Zayane writes*

The effects of climate change are already manifesting themselves in the dense and urbanized coastal city of Marseille. Due to its characteristic Mediterranean climate (hot and dry summers and cool and wet winters), Marseille is vulnerable to heatwaves, drought, fires, acute rains and storms [pdf]. Scientists forecast that with climate change, extreme weather events will increase in both frequency and intensity [pdf]. Marseille will have to grow into an adaptable and resilient city to preserve its water resources.

To most, water in the «Rhône-Méditerranée» appears abundant. The population of Marseille proudly claim they have the best water of France. The Durance and the Verdon rivers are the principal sources of the city’s water. The canals of Marseille and Provence transport water to Marseille.

Research reveals an absence of flood risk awareness in Marseille. This finding is surprising if we take into account the upsurge in flooding episodes due to increasing urban planning and soil impermeability (as pictured).

Marseille regularly experiences excess rainwater runoff after heavy rain due to its dense industrial and urban landscape. Concrete, tar and other impermeable surfaces prevent rainwater from infiltrating the soil. Fifty-five percent of rain collects as runoffs in urban areas, compared to 10% in natural areas.

Rainwater that cannot infiltrate to complete its natural cycle is captured and channeled through pipes. The consequences are worse air pollution and urban heat islands in the city.

Most rainwater is mixed into the wastewater system, which concentrates rainwater and overwhelms the system in heavy rains. The Géolide plant treats 60% of the city’s wastewater, but it rejects excess water into the environment when it is overwhelmed. A large retention basin was commissioned to collect excess water.

Excess runoffs threatens residents, increases maintenance costs and harms the environment. Municipalities regularly close beaches due to runoff.

Marseille’s drainage system is not suited for climate change. Urban planners and water managers are working to retain water in the city using floodable sports fields, permeable parking, and green roundabouts.

Bottom Line: Marseille’s drainage system is not suited for climate change and the extreme rains it brings. Instead of building expensive, inflexible retention basins, the city should work to increase infiltration everywhere.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

The inequality of water in Detroit, Michigan

Maud writes*

In 2014 UN experts declared that the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan violated human rights of citizens as one expert noted that the “[d]isconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Since the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 around 100,000 houses have been shut-off from their water supply. Households were shut off if residents had bills two months overdue or were more than $150 in debt.

The municipal bankruptcy in 2013 led to ‘state-directed emergency management’ which translated in the attempt to collect debt from the poorest residents while ignoring to collect larger debts from commercial companies (Ponder & Omstedt, 2019). Additionally, a “special purpose government” was started to manage the water supply and aging infrastructure. According to a paper on the water crisis, the Detroit Water and Sewerage department was responsible for the water service in Detroit and surrounding areas before 2014 and still remains the owner of the infrastructure, however the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) leases, operates and decides on the water system for forty years. The establishment of the GLWA led to the privatization of the water service in Detroit. According to the same paper, this led to the isolation of one single problem, in this case the water supply, while ignoring the connectedness to other issues the community faces, such as poverty and racial injustice. Additionally, many members of the Authority were appointed by counties and the governor of Michigan, moving away from the interests of the city’s citizens. Many of the appointees that run the city of Detroit are state appointees, meaning they will be less concerned and connected with the issues in Detroit as they may have different concerns and interests. According to another report this also reduces the influence of Detroit’s citizens on long-term decisions that could improve the future of the system.

The underlying causes of the water crisis in Detroit arose due to the continuous population and economic decline (Gaber et al). As of 2016, Detroit has the highest rate of poverty in the USA out of any major city, with around 35.7% of its residents living in poverty. Accompanied by an increasing price of water service, this combination led to the water crisis Detroit was and is currently facing. The increasing water price can be attributed to ageing infrastructure (some of it 100 years old), which frequently fails and is expensive to repair. According to Sabourin (2016), the population decline also contributes to the high prices, as the cost of maintaining infrastructure built for 1 million+ citizens is now shared among 680,000 residents.

To address the crisis, Sabourin suggests involving citizens in decision-making and addressing inequalities. One solution is to elect “water-service” representatives to address issues and the sources of problems.

Bottom Line: The conditions that led to the water crisis in Detroit can be attributed to poor water management, poverty, high water prices, and the lack of representation of the people of Detroit in the decision-making process.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Can desalination quench Adelaide’s thirst?

Cerys writes*

Adelaide has always had problems with water security, ever since its establishment by British settlers in 1836. In the mid-19th century the growing population came to the realisation that the small Torrens River couldn’t fulfil Adelaide’s rapidly growing demand for water. Although reservoirs were built, Adelaide’s water supply still couldn’t cope with the increasing demand. So in 1955 Adelaide started to pipe in water from the Murray River (over 60 kilometres away), but this was a temporary solution.

The use of the Murray River has now become a source of contention and Adelaide is once again on the search for a new, sustainable source of water. In 2012 the South Australian government constructed a AU$1.83 billion-dollar (€1.18 billion) desalinisation plant in Lonsdale, just south of the city. It has the capacity to produce 100GL of clean water per year. In 2019 the South Australian government decided to increase water production at the desalination plant to 40GL of water per year in aid of drought relief. This figure may rise to 60GL in 2021.

Photo source.

Although this may seem like a solution to water scarcity, this plan has three large problems;

  1. The plant doesn’t have the capability to produce enough water to satisfy Adelaide’s water demand. At the moment Adelaide’s desalination plant supplies around 4% of Adelaide’s water demand, but even if the plant is running at maximum capacity (100GL per year), this would only satisfy half of Adelaide’s water demand. Therefore, Adelaide will be forced to continue using unsustainable, alternative water sources such as the Murray River.
  2. Desalination is expensive! According to SA Water’s 2016 report, water costs AU$0.95/m3 (€0.61) to produce in Adelaide’s desalination plant. This is more than 9 times the global average for ground water extraction. Because of this, the South Australian government is unwilling to make desalination the main source of water in Adelaide because it’s economically unsustainable.
  3. Desalination has negative environmental impacts. Desalination plants require the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and they produce brine as a by-product that may harm marine organisms and coastal water quality. Since the negative environmental impacts of water extraction from the Murray River is one of the reasons why Adelaide wants to reduce its reliance on the Murray, it doesn’t make any sense to switch to desalination instead, as that also damages the environment.

Adelaide will not be able to rely on desalination to quench its increasing thirst, so What’s the solution? Should they focus on recycling waste water or fixing leaks or lowering demand through price increases? In reality, this question is very difficult to answer and I’m sure that if there was one simple solution, Australia would already be doing it.

Bottom Line: Desalinisation is not a permanent solution to Adeaide’s water scarcity.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Rising groundwater levels in Milan, Italy

Maria writes*

The Metropolitan City of Milan lies in the middle of the Po Valley, enclosed by the Ticino and the Adda rivers on its western and eastern sides respectively, and by the southern Alps on the north. Its whole region is characterized by the presence of smaller rivers, streams, and canals, which used to dominate also in the city center’s landscape up until 100 years ago (cerchia of navigli). Today, the canals of the city center are mostly buried underground to give space to motorized mobility, but water abundance is still typical of the urban area. Indeed, Milan lies on top of on of the largest Italian aquifers, which expands throughout the Po Valley and which made large scale agriculture and intense industrial development possible in this region.

The citizens of Milan started to get their drinking water from the aquifer below the city during the 19th century, concurrently with the public interventions to seal up the old canals, which were a threat to public health, promoting the spread of pathogens and epidemics. Since the second half of the century, the aquifer has been the only source of water for the city and its management has been assigned to the public utility Milano Metropolitana (MM) Spa since 2003. MM is run as a private corporation, but it is legally public as it is wholly owned by the municipality of the City of Milan. Additionally, it is regulated by the public authority Ufficio d’Ambito (ATO), which decides which tariffs to impose and which utility to entrust.

MM does not have problems in the extraction and provision of high-quality drinking water, given the local abundance of the resource. However, rising groundwater is increasingly causing floods and water infiltration in the underground structures of the city. The ground water table (i.e., the distance between the ground level and the underground water body) in Milan’s region has been steadily rising since the early 90s, now creating severe threats to several underground structures as for example the four metro lines. The ground water rise has been attributed to the economic system change that characterized the city of Milan during the 80s. Indeed, the city went from being a predominantly industrial urban area, to having an economy based on third sector services, which drastically reduced the water demand from the aquifer, earlier dominated by industrial use.

The recent groundwater rise, combined with the increase in (extreme) precipitation events due to climate change, require innovative management solutions to avoid continuous flooding and infiltration events, which are damaging and costly. Additionally, the rise in groundwater also poses the threat of contaminating the aquifer, since it encounters chemical elements which are more present in the upper strata. Because of such contamination, drinking water extraction already takes place at deeper levels of the aquifer, which are more pristine. Milan has the luck of having a reliable water source, therefore its protection and sustainable management should be of primary concern for the local authorities.

Bottom Line: Water abundance does not necessarily mean absence of water conflicts


* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Safe Water: A NOLA Ghost Story

Petra writes*

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the subsequent lack of response and aid reverberated across the United States. The lack of communication, funding and support that New Orleans residents received during the disaster has persisted for the past 15 years and the city’s water scarcity issues have not been exempt. Given the city’s historic vulnerability to natural disasters, one would assume that transparency, communication and active aid services would be of the utmost priority to federal and local regulators. Unfortunately, even non-residents can see this is not the case. NOLA’s water management is characterized by contradiction and ambiguity. Accessible resources are scarce. Information that is available is unclear and potentially dangerously misleading.

First, let us assess the regulations. The Sewage and Water Board is the regulator for drinking and wastewater in the Greater New Orleans area. The standards for water quality and plant conditions are set and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has claimed that the city’s water quality exceeded standards, but failed to specify the details and results of the testing that did take place. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit that runs water quality testing nationwide, showed that the Carrollton Plant has tested positive for 28 contaminants, 8 of which drastically exceed the EWG’s health guidelines and include substances like Chloroform, Radium, Nitrate and Nitrite, all of which are carcinogenic. The New Orleans Algiers plant showed similar results with 24 total contaminants, 10 of which exceeded health guidelines. EWG’s website also states that both the water plants have passed the legal requirements for water quality but those legal requirements have not been updated in 20 years.

The next issue concerns the regulators. A recent interview with Buzzfeed News exposed some of these concerns. Four senior water board employees showed that they did not know how many lead service lines existed in the city or where they were, nor were there any valid records of high risk houses or lead lines. The EPA requires the city to test at least 80 homes with lead piping every three years but the aforementioned article revealed that former water board chief and employees tested the lead in their houses and those of their friends as opposed to the high risk houses they were supposed to test. Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health found higher lead levels than those published by the board: 96% of 1,604 samples had detectable lead (see figure).

The Sewage and Water Board has a seemingly never ending flow of reassuring remarks for its residents that water infrastructure is in top shape. Local journalists, however, report frequent water main breaks [link available to US-based internet users]; boil water advisory notices are regularly posted [link available to US-based internet users]; and the 106 year old Carrollton plant, responsible for almost all the city’s drinking water, recently suffered a major turbine explosion with no follow up from the regulator.

Bottom Line: The lack of service, transparency and honesty that the Sewage and Water Board have displayed is putting the lives of New Orleans residents and the city’s future in danger.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Miami’s rising water scarcity problem

Ilse writes*

Many cities around the world are facing water scarcity, and so is Miami. Although Miami may seem to have abundant water, it’s mostly salty Atlantic Ocean water. Miami actually gets its drinking water from groundwater aquifers. The Biscayne Aquifer provides 90% of the drinking water to Miami and surrounding areas.

Miami’s water scarcity is not due to overconsumption but environmental pollution. The Biscayne Aquifer is shallow and composed of very porous limestone, making it vulnerable to saltwater contamination from rising sea levels. The city’s water treatment plants cannot now desalinate water, and desalination is expensive, energy-intensive, and environmentally harmful.

Miami’s freshwater is also vulnerable to increasing rainfall and floods. Heavy rainfall has increased 7% since 1960, contributing to more and heavier floods that damage homes and roads but also carry toxins and pollutants from Superfund sites (contaminated locations in the USA that need long-term clean-ups) into the Biscayne Aquifer. Water treatment plants of limited capacities cannot handle heavy flows, resulting in raw wastewater discharges into waterways.

An environmental watchdog group stated that Miami’s water is badly contaminated compared to other US cities Using unpublished data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, EWG found ‘forever chemicals’ in the drinking water. These chemicals (perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) do not break down in the environment, and their presence has been linked to liver damage, cancer, and other health problems.

Bottom line: Miami’s drinking water is threatened by rising sea levels, floods that carry pollutants into groundwater aquifers, and treatment plants unsuited of removing salt and pollutants. The government of Miami must take action to solve these issues.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂