Eighty Days Left: Cape Town Grappling With Water Crisis

24 January 2018 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


After years of unprecedented drought, Cape Town may run out of water within 80 days. Cape Town has recently experienced three years of poor rains, a phenomenon which, according to University of Cape Town climatologists, occurs less than once in a millennium. While it is uncertain exactly what caused the drought, climate change is considered to be one contributing factor. Cape Town’s population has also increased by fifty per cent over the last decade, further adding to the pressure on the city’s water sources. For many years, the Cape Town government has failed to develop water infrastructure to meet the increase in population, resulting in demand-side problems that have also contributed to the shortage.


Cape Town leaders are currently exploring a range of options to alleviate pressure caused by the drought, including fast-tracking plans to construct desalination plants, and extracting water from boreholes and Cape Town’s three aquifers. Despite warnings for consumers to cut their water consumption, many of Cape Town’s 3.7 million residents are exceeding the restriction of 87 litres of water per day. Only 54 per cent of people are hitting the targets imposed on water usage. Residents are banned from watering their gardens and washing their cars and water pressure across the city has been cut. Some residents have turned to installing rainwater tanks and private boreholes, but those solutions are only useful for those who can afford it, and if there is enough rain to fill them. With limited space in which to store water, people in the city’s lowest socio-economic circles have been hit the hardest by the shortage.

“Day Zero” – the day that authorities predict taps will run dry – has been moved forward from 29 April to 22 April 2018. Dam levels must decline to 13.5 per cent capacity for this to occur, they are currently at 35 per cent, and were at 53 per cent at the start of 2017, and 92 per cent in 2014. If Day Zero were to occur, the implications are likely to be catastrophic. Water is set to be cut from the majority of households and businesses, and the South African army and local police will supervise residents gathering a maximum of 25 litres of water from collection sites across the city, per day. Many questions surrounding the logistics of the operation remain unanswered, including the question of to whether 200 collection sites will be sufficient to meet the demands of almost four million residents. Alternatively, many Capetonians may have to be evacuated, but that is likely to generate economic and social pressure on resources in other cities.

Cape Town Dam Levels

The water crisis is further complicated by political bickering. Western Cape Province is currently governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, while the rest of the country is governed by the African National Congress. As the drought worsened, the provincial and national governments accused one another of mismanagement, exacerbating the water shortage. Furthermore, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille was formally charged by the DA with misconduct and bringing the party into disrepute. De Lille’s critics claim that her “autocratic” leadership style has affected the city’s response to the water crisis. De Lille is set to face disciplinary proceedings, but will continue her role as mayor in the meantime.

It is rare for a city with highly developed water infrastructure, like Cape Town, to experience such extreme threats to water security. Cape Town is a picturesque city that draws millions of tourists each year. Should the city’s water shortage continue to worsen, not only will a crisis break out surrounding the supply of water for local residents, hospitals, agriculture and business, but the city’s tourism industry will also be seriously jeopardised. Economic debt is likely to set in long after the taps run dry.

It is unlikely that enough groundwater will be secured from aquifers before Day Zero. Completion of any new desalination plants will not occur for at least another year, and it seems that only the wealthy will be able to afford privately sourcing water from trucks importing water into the city. With winter rains not expected until June, Cape Town must become more drastic in its water-saving measures. Politicians and city leaders must put internal politics aside and focus solely on the job at hand, while more consumers must begin to comply with water-saving measures or risk realising how scarce their dwindling water supplies truly are.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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