A devastating drought that has placed severe restrictions on water usage in South Africa—particularly in the Western Cape province, its capital Cape Town, and the neighboring Northern Cape—has captured U.S. attention. There are several reasons for this, among them the fact that Americans are more familiar with South Africa than with other parts of Africa due to tourism as well as business and cultural links. The drought also is evidence of the deleterious effects of climate change. With regard to climate change, Cape Town is almost a dress rehearsal for what rapidly growing American cities in the Sun Belt, such as Los Angeles or Phoenix, could face in the future.
In 2017, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille declared her province a disaster area because of the drought. In March, the ruling African National Congress’ minister for cooperative governance, Zweli Mkhize, declared a national state of emergency. However, with the arrival of winter rains, Mkhize decided not to renew the state of emergency when it expired on June 13.
The weather is finally improving. In May, South Africa’s late autumn, more cold fronts than usual pushed across the Western Cape, bringing rain. The South African Weather Service expects “slightly above normal” rainfall this winter season. Water levels in dams around Cape Town are also improving. In early June they were at 32.1 percent of normal capacity, compared to 29.8 percent the week before and 20.9 percent a year earlier. The largest dam in Western Cape, Theewaterskloof, is at 21.5 percent of capacity.
Weather experts caution that the welcome rain has not officially broken the long drought. According to the National Drought Coordinating Committee, however, the acute phase of the drought in Western, Eastern, and Northern Cape has ended. It suggested the region is now entering a “resilience building” phase, where officials will focus on adapting to water scarcity exacerbated by climate change.
Like the Los Angeles and Phoenix metropolitan areas, Cape Town’s population has been growing steadily over the past decade and a half, adding over a million people from 2001 to 2016 to reach just over four million. The city is wealthy, with a per capita income close to $16,000, and there has been improvement in the quality of township housing, albeit from a low base. However, the city’s water use has increased as precipitation levels have decreased—this is the new reality to which Cape Town, and many other cities around the world, will need to build “resilience.”