Thematic axes Global Challenges

Kevin Winter

Cities must lead the processes to fight climate change



Kevin Winter, professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Cape Town and an expert in water management, stressed how a city without water would be an unprecedented disaster. His conference was held at the Antoni Tapies Foundation in Barcelona as part of Re-city's  "Facing Climate Change" conference cycle, organized by the Catalunya Europa Foundation and BBVA with the suport of the Department of "Territori i Sostenibilitat" of Generalitat de Catalunya. 

Under the title "War for Water and Nexus with Energy and Social Justice," Kevin Winter explained his experience in Cape Town, the first major city in the world to face the dreaded "day zero" - the moment when tap water could stop flowing as a result of drought and climate change.  Fortunately, much-needed rain and a series of urgent measures were enough to avoid this, but the threat continues into 2019 as  reservoir levels continue to drop.

For Kevin Winter, all cities in the world and especially those at risk of drought, such as Barcelona, can learn valuable lessons from the experience in Cape Town. To begin with, good water management is essential - this includes quantifying water demand, and understanding the figures  in order to try to control water consumption. In Cape Town alone, around 2,000 people's jobs involve checking water meters.

During the crisis, Cape Town also took measures to drastically lower the level of water consumption to 50 liters per person per day. In Spain the average was 132 liters per inhabitant per day in 2017 - this is considered low compared to other countries, such as the United States, which exceeds 300 liters per person per day. Thanks to a conscious population, in just five weeks Cape Town managed to go from a daily consumption of 700 million liters to 500 million. In parallel, it also invested in improving infrastructure in order to tackle 14% water leakage - a high figure, but still well below the average of many other cities.

According to Winter, sensitivie use of water in cities must be encouraged. One example of good water management and integration in cities is Singapore, a pioneer in recycling and water conservation. Initiatives in Cape Town Mexico City including the construction of canals that take advantage of rainwater and create green areas that support the appearance of new species also stand out. Both cities have also promoted the creation of urban gardens that improve neighborhood coexistence. For professor Winter, the social benefits of building these canals have surpassed those of all behavioral programs that had been previously attempted in Cape Town. He insisted that it was very important to share experiences and information with other cities, and to act with time and foresight, rather than waiting until the crisis is over and we are in the middle of an emergency.

The key to good city management is planning, anticipating crises, looking for signs of danger and investing better in water reuse. He argued that cities can lead the way in adapting more quickly. He showed data from a study indicating that if warming exceeds 1.5 °C, in 2050, 800 million people in 570 cities of the world will be exposed to flooding.

For Winter, cities, together with citizens, and partnerships between the public and private sectors, must become agents of change. We can not expect governments to do everything because they do not have the capacity to act quickly enough against climate change alone.

  • Watch the conference in English here.