Why Is Cape Town Drying Up?

Sand blows across a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

A historic dry spell has severely affected Cape Town's water supply, and global climate patterns suggest that other cities may face the same fate.

February 22, 2018

Sand blows across a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town. Mike Hutchings/Reuters
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Cape Town, a city of four million people stuck in its third year of a historic drought, faces exceptional water scarcity. Residents of the South African metropolis are bracing for a so-called Day Zero, when the government expects to cut off taps to homes and businesses. The city’s water infrastructure, dependent on rainfall stored in dams, has not kept pace with climate change, says Kevin Winter, an urban water expert at the University of Cape Town. “We’d always believed that climate change wouldn’t be as rapid as this, that it wouldn’t give us a shock like this,” Winter says. Forecast for early July, Day Zero would require residents to ration water from two hundred collection points.

What are the main causes of Cape Town’s water crisis?

The starting point and the highest and most impactful factor that’s taking place is an extremely low average rainfall. And we are seeing the signs of climate change beginning to drive what little rainfall remains to unexpectedly low levels. This is the third, coming into the fourth, year of well-below-average rainfall, the lowest we’ve had on record. And if you’re in a city where the reliance is entirely on stored water, then inevitably you’re going to find yourself unable to cope with the amount of stored water that’s available. It really is one of the first signs of a brutal attack on our climate and the impacts that has on a water system that is fundamentally focused on stored water alone.

How has the city managed its water?

The city’s had a very successful water management program. It’s been in place since 1999 and has been able to keep the water demand down to a level which has absorbed a larger population. The population has almost doubled from two million roughly just before 1996 to now more than four million people. And the water demand has remained relatively stable. They’ve done that through good pressured management systems, through dealing with leaks, through education, through a stepped-up tariff process, which means cost of water has increased for those who are high-end users. This has kept people in a position of not abusing the water. The city has been acknowledged worldwide for its success in that program. But, of course, for all of this to work, you have to have rain, and if you don’t, it soon collapses. There’s always been a long-term plan for the Western Cape: the Western Cape Water Reconciliation Plan. That plan goes through to 2032, and it has in place our first major intervention, [set] for 2019. We’d always believed that climate change wouldn’t be as rapid as this, that it wouldn’t give us a shock like this, and that we’d have time to plan for 2019. Then there are various interventions and investments that were going to occur from 2019 through to 2032, including investments in desalinization.

We’d always believed that climate change wouldn’t be as rapid as this, that it wouldn’t give us a shock like this.

What does the situation look like on the ground? Describe the types of conservation measures that the government has imposed on Cape Town’s residents.

There’s a large reaction, which is panic and anxiety about what the next months might hold, and for good reason. Sometimes panic has a reaction that causes people to wake up and do things, but also it induces people to invest in things that maybe are not that necessary. There’s a tension between trying to get your own demand of water down, and then there’s “let’s get more supplies into a system.”

Households have been doing incredible work in getting to a level of reduction in demand that is almost unprecedented for a city, to have shifted a population from what was then 1.2 billion liters of water a day down to about 520 million liters. That’s remarkable.

Local and national political leaders are urging residents to come together to defeat Day Zero. Can this crisis realistically be averted?

I’m cautiously optimistic for a number of reasons. I can see, from a more technical side, that there’s a lot of very smart work going on, in both keeping the water demand down, which is obviously quite crucial, and the messages from the politically elected—from moving water from one catchment [collection basin] to another, to bringing water into the system, as we’ve just had this last week, to reducing the demand of water from the agricultural sector, to new projects that hold some promise to supplement our water. There is a lot going on that is helping to manage the water that we’ve got and to bring new schemes that are augmenting our water.

To my mind, we’d be very unlucky if we get to a stage where the taps run dry. I can’t see it easily happening at all. It’s a long shot at the moment, [but] it’s one that I think we’d be hesitant to get overconfident about. I’m pleased with the way progress is happening right now. The models that we’re following suggest that we can avert Day Zero.

Is this a global trend? Do you predict other cities and states will face similar water crises?

There are multiple helpful lessons that we are learning here. We’ve got to recognize that there are a lot of cities already in trouble. So we’re not the only ones. Although the focus is on Cape Town, there are others, like São Paulo, which from 2012 to 2016 went through a very similar drought. They literally had to queue up for their water in parts of São Paulo. Mexico City is tragic at the moment. That is another disaster that’s underway.

The models that we’re following suggest that we can avert Day Zero.

Probably at least twenty cities have been identified—and they’re big cities—that may experience this kind of rapid climate change–driven water scarcity. So we need to learn from this reaction. For us on the African continent, in a city which is very widely dispersed in terms of income and legacies of apartheid remain very much embedded in our structure and layout and land use in the city, ours is a very different case. We haven’t recovered from the ravages of apartheid. We’re still trying to invest in things like education, transport, housing, health, and unemployment. So where does water fall in all of that? Well, it hasn’t really ever hit the priority headlines. Those five things are really important legacies to be addressed from the apartheid system. And now we add water to it.

Cities elsewhere in the world might find themselves in exactly the same position. You try to plan for a drought that probably has a one in one thousand chance of occurring to this extent, and no infrastructure engineering or other investments are going to be able to cope with that. There’s always going to be a large failure and we’re partly experiencing that right now.

What is a takeaway for other cities facing similar challenges?

The big warning is to start diversifying water sources and to become much more efficient in the management of water within the city. The lesson is [to learn] how to manage our water differently by closing the loop of the water cycle that is running through the city. When water falls in the city, we should treat it so that it can be recycled and reused within the city itself.

To put it into perspective, almost two, sometimes three times as much water as we actually need falls on Cape Town over its catchment—not where the dams are but over the city itself. So how do we begin to manage that water that falls on the city much more efficiently and treat the city itself as a catchment? If we did that and thought that way, it would change the way we manage our water.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More on:

Food and Water Security

Southern Africa


South Africa

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