The 2-Minute Thought: A Tale of Two Cities: Cape Town and Toyama

Cape Town, South Africa is running out of water.  The city has managed to temporarily fend off what it calls “Day Zero,” the day it will turn off the taps to the city’s 4 million people and businesses.  But as of now, Day Zero still is coming.  Just a few weeks ago, Day Zero was expected on April 12.  Last-ditch conservation efforts pushed it out until May, and then June.  Now Day Zero is expected on July 9.   

Cape Town is one of Africa’s most affluent, cosmopolitan cities, so it’s crazy to imagine residents having to stand in line with armed guards to get their drinking water.  Except now it’s not so crazy.  Some fear anarchy.  In fact, Helen Zille, former mayor of Cape Town and current premier of Western Cape province, says that preventing anarchy is what she thinks about most.

How did it happen?  First, there has been a three-year drought worse than any for a century.  Climate change has brought drier, warmer weather and reduced winter rainfall.  In addition, Cape Town has experienced explosive population growth

But mistakes also were made.  Some say the city postponed looking for new water sources, even though it was warned as far back as 2007 about future water shortages.  The city is scrambling to build desalination plants now, but those take time.  Some blame political bureaucracy—and some the African National Congress.

Really though, it seems like there was a combination of denial and entitlement.  Officials assumed rainfall patterns would resume as they had in the past, which was wrong.  Magical thinking took over, and Cape Town didn’t prepare. 

As far as entitlement goes, not all city residents are pitching in to conserve.  Emergency water restrictions are in place.  Residents are being asked to shower just twice a week for 90 seconds (greasy hair is a badge of honor).  Daily water use is supposed to be kept to 50 liters a day (for perspective, a 90-second shower takes 15 liters of water, and a single toilet flush takes nine).  But not everyone is meeting the limit, leading the mayor’s office to declare, “it is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.”

And that brings us, by way of contrast, to a city that is not in denial at all, but instead embracing a challenging reality with dignity.  

That would be Toyama in the Hokuriku region of Japan, about three hours by train from Kyoto.  Toyama has a population of 420,000 that is both rapidly aging and shrinking: 30% of the population of Toyama is 65 or older, and by 2045, that number will be 40%.  That could be a crisis too.

But when Masashi Mori was elected mayor in 2005, he realized that the only choice was to accept a smaller, older population.  Efforts to raise birth rates and immigration wouldn’t be enough to stem the population decline.

So Toyama redesigned itself as a “compact city” with a strong center and a plan for transforming transportation, improving elderly quality of life, and reducing carbon emissions.  It rebuilt its public tram system and offered financial incentives to residents willing to move within 500 meters of a tram or bus stop.  The trams are easy for the elderly to navigate – no steps to get on and no barriers to entry.  Plus, it’s much healthier for the elderly to be out and about than to stay at home as they once did when Toyama was a typical auto society sprawling over a larger area. 

The number of public transport passengers has soared – especially for those over age 70.  In addition, the city has set aside areas for pedestrian paths and parks and given grants to those offering elderly services.  It also is building more renewable energy sources:  It plans to nearly double its mini-hydroelectric plants between 2012 and 2021 and triple its solar capacity. 

The result is that even though Toyama’s overall population is falling, the ratio of residents living in the center has risen from 28% in 2005 to 37% now.  A compact city means lower municipal costs and hopefully, says the mayor, “a small city for old people to live comfortably and happily.”  The hope is that by 2025, the ratio of residents in the center rises to 42%.