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2016-03-30 | News

Tracking water use trends in SA’s ‘mother city’

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: In informal settlements and lower income homes in Cape Town, most household water use is for doing laundry. However, in the middle class suburbs, it’s mostly for showering and topping up swimming pools. This finding, from a recent municipal survey in five suburbs across South Africa’s ‘mother city’, underpins an ongoing drive to educate city residents about their water use patterns, in order to urge behaviour change.

One of the take-home messages from the research, says the city’s water demand management spokesperson Thembisa Gqamane, is that wealthier water users need to reduce their showering times dramatically. This resulted in a social media campaign urging people to shorten their shower length, something which wasn’t well received by everyone.

Gqamane was presenting the findings of the city’s 2014-2015 water use survey at the annual University of Cape Town Environmental Policy Research Unit’s (EPRU) policy workshop, which this year addressed emerging ideas on the demand-side management of city utilities.

The survey, which ran across three income brackets, was geared towards plugging the research gap between the educational messages which the city sends its water customers, and whether these bring about behaviour change. 

This information is particularly relevant now, as the city imposes water restrictions following a hot and dry summer, explains behavioural and environmental economist and EPRU workshop organiser Prof Martine Visser.

‘Municipalities can benefit from using behavioural nudges and other similar interventions to achieve water and power savings amongst their customers,’ she explains, ‘and it can also urge people to do things like recycle.’

Water use trends show the income disparity between communities in this city, where one in five people live in an informal settlement, according to the city’s estimates. These are households where few have plumbing in their homes, and most people collect water from communal pipes using buckets. In wealthier communities where people have swimming pools, their water use is 45 percent higher than those in their neighbourhoods who don’t have pools.

In light of these vastly different water-use trends, Gqamane concluded that some additional recommendations were for lower and middle income communities to receive more information about water saving washing machines and other efficiency devices. And the city needs to investigate the impact of water saving practices that specifically target swimming pools.

This information can help tailor the city’s public education around water use, Gqamane told the workshop.