What Cape Town could learn from Melbourne’s success cutting its water consumption in half

When will this end?
When will this end?
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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The drought in Cape Town is getting so bad that its residents have been restricted to just 50 liters (13 gallons) of water per person per day. That’s about the bare minimum needed for survival. Without relief, the city will shut off water supply sometime within the next two months.

What Cape Town needs now is rain—lots of it. If those rains don’t come, city authorities will have no choice but to invest in bigger infrastructure projects like desalination plants and drilling deeper bore holes. These solutions may help overcome the immediate crisis, but in the process could exacerbate the problem by strengthening dependence on increasing water supplies. Eventually, the city will have to reckon with its long-term water-scarcity problem, which climate change is likely to make worse.

When Cape Town is ready to make longer-term changes, one place it can look to for solutions is Melbourne, says Anne Van Loon, a hydrologist at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Melbourne, along with much of southeastern Australia, suffered a water crisis through the long and devastating Millennium Drought that lasted from 1997 to 2010. To counteract the drought, Melbourn made drastic cuts in the city’s water consumption, reducing it by nearly 50%. In 1996, Melbourne residents used about 167,000 liters per person annually; by 2011, that dropped to 86,000, according to a 2013 study.

Better still, even after the drought ended, Melburnians’ use of water has not bounced back. The latest figures Quartz could find for daily consumption were for the period between 2001 and 2016, and we’ve contacted Melbourne for data going back to 1996. Still, even in the incomplete dataset, the trend is clear.

In 2010, Melbourne’s per-capita water consumption was 152 liters per day, and it’s only increased slightly since, to 166 liters per day in 2016. This isn’t necessarily a case of an especially water-frivolous city cutting back; Cape Town’s pre-drought per-capita water usage was 225 liters per day in 2009 (pdf), similar to Melbourne’s numbers in the early 2000s. That shows there’s definitely scope to reduce consumption in Cape Town.

So how did Melbourne achieve the feat? “There’s no silver bullet,” says Van Loon. “The city deployed a whole host of water-saving measures.”

The biggest saving came from mandatory and voluntary changes in water use. At one end of that spectrum, for example, city officials fined people for daytime lawn watering or car washing. At the other, small community programs provided timers to help people spend less time in the shower (which is where Melburnians typically use the most water on a daily basis). The government also offered rebates for using more water-efficient washing machines and dishwashers; distributed educational material to schools and colleges; and advertised on TV and in newspapers.

Not all of these solutions will be applicable to Cape Town, which is much poorer than Melbourne, or to the next city that finds itself facing a water crisis. But some of them will. More importantly, Melbourne’s example shows that a city can indeed come together and work towards a solution that can change its residents approach to a critical resource even after the crisis is over.

Some parts of Melbourne, for example, still restrict daytime sprinkler use. Better still, studies have found that Melburnians value the spirit of goodwill and cooperation forced on to them by the drought. “The Millennium Drought brought about profound changes in Australians’ conception of the environment, climate change, and water,” a 2014 study concluded.