Dripping Down to Day Zero: Cape Town’s Looming Water Crisis

 /  Feb. 11, 2018, 3:51 p.m.

Cape Town

It is an apocalyptic thought: imagine turning on the faucet to wash your hands, but no water comes out. This shortage is not due to a plumbing failure, or a temporary depletion of the water tank, but because your entire city has run out of water. On April 12, this could very well be the dire reality for millions of people living in Cape Town, South Africa, when the city shuts off its water supply due to depleted dam levels.

South Africa has faced severe drought for three consecutive years now. Even with new measures—such as hiring thousands of young people to monitor the water system’s leaks (which account for nearly 40 percent of annual water wastage) and the rapid building of desalination plants—the six dam reservoir system supplying the Western Cape is nearing just 13.5 percent of operating capacity. The water shortage in South Africa brings with it an array of problems, including but not limited to the imminent concerns of mass dehydration and public unrest. This manifestation of the perilous intersection between climate change and population growth—which has been seen in cities around the world, from Los Angeles to São Paulo—has forced local governments to become creative in their methods of limiting water usage.

In 2006, the United Nations estimated that about 1.2 billion people in the world were affected by physical water scarcity, meaning they did not have regular access to clean, filtered water. The situation today, twelve years later, has surely intensified. Yet one would think that a water scarce city like Cape Town would have the budget and capacity to manage such a problem. With a population of nearly 4.3 million people and a budget of approximately US$3 billion, Cape Town boasts one of the largest economies in Africa. This is no small municipality incapable of remedying its water problems due to lack of resources—this is a conundrum that could be paralleled in any major city around the world.

It is an understatement to say that Capetonians have felt the effects of the drought: the suggested daily consumption of municipal water currently stands at thirteen gallons (compared to the average American’s usage of one hundred gallons of water per day), which is nearly a 50 percent reduction from last month’s suggested limit of twenty-three gallons. Plans to implement water saving technologies were supposed to take effect in 2020, but with reservoir levels reaching unprecedented lows, emergency measures, such as the drilling of boreholes and the implementation of harsh water restrictions, are being taken so as to prolong the city’s current water supply. These solutions must be sustainable into the future, not only geared towards the immediate interests of Cape Town’s residents, but also with long term water conservation in mind. Perhaps most importantly, as climate change becomes more of a pressing reality in the region, the population’s attitude towards water and its efficient usage will need to shift.

In order to devise potential solutions to this problem, one must first determine the cause of the drought. As to be expected, there are several culprits, the major ones being rapid population growth, climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, and general water mismanagement on the part of the municipal, provincial, and national government. Though the city’s metropolitan population has increased from 2.4 million residents in 1995 to a predicted 4.3 million this year, dam storage has increased by only 15 percent. Climate change has decreased the annual rainfall in the region, as the westerly winds that bring rain during the winter months of June-September have shifted their travel path in recent years. Cape Town has further been victimized by vineyards’ unsustainable practices, which suck the land dry in order to produce the choicest grapes. Finally, the easiest target of blame is the government, mainly due to its failure to implement water reduction technologies in time to prevent this foreseeable crisis.

Cape Town must develop a two-fold solution to this problem: in the short term, the municipal government can continue to strongly recommend city residents limit their water usage, which has been effective to the point that the city’s total water usage has been reduced by 50 percent. In the long run, engineering programs can be implemented to maximize the efficiency of water usage throughout the city. The government can incentivize water rationing with reduced prices for those who maintain usage under the recommended level of thirteen gallons per day and impose price increases on those who exceed that limit. Furthermore, there are already engineering projects underway, coupled with public efforts, such as the aforementioned War on Leaks program, that attempt to normalize water conservation. Throughout this process it will be necessary that the government remain transparent about its plans so as to minimize any public unrest that might occur as a result of heightened uncertainty over the future of water.

Cape Town’s crisis should not be looked at in isolation; rather, the world must take note of its efforts to mitigate the effects of the drought. With the 2006 UN report showing the bottom half of the United States to be water scarce, along with myriad other locations across the globe, millions are at risk of their taps being shut off: Cape Town’s response to this crisis will set the precedent of how a developed city, in a developed nation, reacts to a shortage of one of humans’ most fundamental needs.

Molly McCammon is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.

Molly McCammon

Molly McCammon is a first-year prospective double major in Philosophy and Political Science. On campus she is a data research assistant for the Chicago Project on Security Threats (CPOST), involved in EUChicago, and volunteers with non-profit Sirat, helping conduct ESL lessons for Syrian refugees living in Hyde Park. In her free time she enjoys running, reading, and finding Chicago’s best baklava.