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Cape Town’s Water Crisis — Lessons Learned

Caption: Dried up Berg River Dam in Cape Town. Source:
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Cape Town, a major metropolis in South Africa, is home to more than four million people. It is a bustling tourist destination that contributes almost 10% of South Africa’s GDP. However, for the past two years, the city has been suffering from a severe shortage of water. The government has limited water usage for each Capetonian to a fraction of what the average American enjoys today. The water crisis has impacted South Africa, such as those living around Cape Town in the province of the Western Cape, who have had their water limited as well, though not as much as the Capetonians. Fortunately, Day Zero, the day when Cape Town’s taps are predicted to dry out, has been postponed to 2019, but the people of Cape Town and the surrounding regions are still burdened by the crisis. Worldwide, millions of people living in rural areas lack water. However, Cape Town’s status as an urban, modern setting makes the crisis particularly troubling, serving as a dire warning as to what the future holds in store for us.

Causes of the Crisis

In 2015, a major drought struck Cape Town. According to South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation, the drought has caused annual rainfall to fall to the lowest point since 1933, in 2017, causing dam levels to plummet. Worsening the impact of the drought, the population of Cape Town is increasing quickly—it has grown almost 80% since 1995.

Source: South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation

Drought is an unpredictable phenomenon—it has a myriad of factors that are almost impossible to track. However, since 1920, the drought interval, or the number of years with more than average rainfall separating years of drought, has sharply decreased. The reduction of the drought interval is problematic because it does not allow water levels to recuperate after a period of scarce rainfall, resulting in a long-term lack of water.

The drought interval has decreased since 1920 (Source: University of Cape Town)

Anthropogenic climate change is a major cause of Cape Town’s decreasing drought interval and current drought. According to Kevin Winter, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, “disturb the temperature, [and] you disturb the pressure and you start to see different systems operating.” The weather systems of each part of the world are extremely interconnected, so small changes in different, local weather systems can have drastic impacts on the global weather system as a whole. Therefore, the global increase in temperature due to climate change is an influence in Cape Town’s drought.


On June 1st, 2017, Cape Town declared its drought to be the worst in a century. At that point it had less than 10% of useable water remaining in its dams. The city implemented Level 4 water restrictions, limiting daily usage per capita to be 100 liters, or about 26 gallons. To put that in perspective, the average American uses 80-100 gallons of water a day. The city encouraged its citizens to save water, by encouraging using graywater for flushing toilets and taking 90-second showers. In October 2017, the city of Cape Town developed an emergency water plan, consisting of three phases.

On September 3rd, 2017, as the summer season approached (note that Cape Town is in the Southern hemisphere), Cape Town instituted Level 5 water restrictions, which set the daily water usage per capita at 87 liters, or 23 gallons, and banning most non-essential uses of water. On the same day, Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille stated that the goal was to consume less 500 million liters per day, saying that “as of last week, consumption stood at 599 million litres per day. …With the winter rainfall season likely to end in the next three to four weeks, we simply have to get used to using less water as we enter the summer season.” The government warned that harsh fines would await anybody who exceeded their daily limit, but many people ignored these threats.

In January 2018, the city announced that Day Zero would occur when the level of Cape Town’s dams dropped to 13.5%. On Day Zero, water taps would be shut off, excluding the city’s central business district and services such as hospitals. Citizens would have to travel to one of 149 water collection points across Cape Town to collect 25 liters of water each day—each collection point would serve approximately 20,000 residents. According to JP Smith, a Cape Town mayoral committee member, “police blitz operations will be sent out to different suburbs every day… to make sure residents don’t waste water.” He warns that after Day Zero, “the vulnerability of [employees] who are already struggling would dramatically deepen. Some of those job losses may become permanent.” The city fears that many businesses across Cape Town will close due to the lack of water, resulting in thousands of job losses.

On January 9th, 2018, the Mayor of Cape Town announced that Day Zero would be moved one week earlier from April 29th, 2018, to April 22nd, and then to the 12th, because the city’s daily water usage of 578 million liters did not meet the goal of 500 million liters.

Poster encouraging Capetonians to stick to the 50 L limit (Source: CNN)

On the 1st of February of 2018, Level 6B water restrictions limited daily water usage to about 50 liters, or 13 gallons, per capita. Due to reduced agricultural water usage, Day Zero was pushed back about a month to May 11th. A few days later, the Capetonians received a bit of good luck, when the Groenland Water Users’ Association, a group of farmers from areas around Cape Town, donated 10 billion liters of water into the Steenbras Dam. By March 9th, Day Zero was postponed into 2019, because of the additional water and declined usage.

Proposed Solutions and the Future

The government of South Africa and Cape Town have spent a lot of effort trying to tackle the crisis. As mentioned before, the city of Cape Town has imposed fines on water usage abusers and put out police to patrol Cape Town’s suburbs. They are building new desalinization plants, drilling new wells, and creating a plant that can reuse wastewater. Other solutions have been offered to resolve the crisis, including harnessing the water of icebergs that break off from Antarctica and using stormwater.

However, these efforts have been ineffective and a bit too late. In 2014, the city “conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources. For years Cape Town had been warned that it needed to increase and diversify its water supply.” However, the city did not act, and once it was hit by a drought out of the blue, dam levels dropped from nearly full to about a quarter capacity. The national government has not been able to adequately control water supplies to the Western Cape province and balance the supply of water to Cape Town and the surrounding agricultural regions.

Both the national and city governments’ efforts to resolve the crisis have been criticized harshly. David Olivier, a scientist of the University of Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute, says that “the national government has dragged its feet.” In October 2017, the chief executive of the desalinization company GrahamTek, Julius Steyn, blasted the city for ignoring the warnings of the water crisis and failing to provide a solution beforehand. Kevin Winter thinks that when the crisis was just starting, the city should have pursued projects that required little effort, such as extracting groundwater, instead of building desalinization plants, which take several years to complete. The residents of Cape Town have expressed frustration at the city government. On Facebook, Capetonian Kaydin Davids wrote, “Only a politician can make an announcement that Day Zero will not happen in 2018 and receive applause from his colleagues and supporters.” James Healey wrote, “Why don’t Maimane [the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the opposition political party] and the DA apologise for the lack of foresight over their years in power?”

Cape Town’s water crisis may be a sneak peak of what is yet to come. Several cities, not just Cape Town have experienced water shortages, such as São Paolo and Las Vegas. Many more water crises will probably emerge as a result of climate change. Just in 2014, Cape Town was the head of the green city movement. It was awarded the Adaptation Implementation prize for its management of water by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group of cities that focused on tackling climate change. Just three years later, Cape Town plunged into a water crisis. Thus, do not think that any city is immune to a water crisis or any other crisis caused by climate change. Because of a sudden climatic event, human mismanagement, conflict, or another cause, grievous events like Cape Town’s water crisis will continue to plague humanity.



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