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Why Cape Town Is About to Run Out of Water

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Parched earth and dust storms extend across much of the Theewaterskloof Dam, an area normally filled with several hundred million cubic meters of water sparkling under the Sun. Sand dunes, built up within the largest dam in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, almost completely bury parts of the barbed fence intended to demarcate the water’s edge. A couple dozen miles away, millions of city dwellers who normally depend on this and other dams are stretching their dwindling water resources any way that they can. Empty swimming pools, withered vegetation in public parks, and sign warning against excess water use are the drought’s public face.

Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, is in crisis mode. The city’s four million people, who’ve been subjected to strict water restrictions for months, may soon see their taps run dry on what the city government has ominously labeled “Day Zero”. What comes after could well stand in for the setting of a dystopian blockbuster, with centralized water rationing stations guarded by local police and defense forces keeping the peace.


Cape Town’s predicament is extreme, but reflects the increasingly precarious state of the water supplies worldwide. From the Middle East to the American West, historic droughts have gripped cities and regions globally, causing incredible damage to communities, economies, and ecologies. And with urban populations rising and drought expected to increase in many regions of the world due to climate change, Cape Town’s water problems may preface more crises to come.


Historic Drought and Dangerously Low Dams

After several consecutive years of historic drought, the overall levels of the city’s dams have dropped from nearly full in early 2014 to around 28 percent of capacity early this year. The city’s reserves are so low that officials have estimated that without relief from Mother Nature they will need to turn off municipal taps in late April 2018.

Significant precipitation is not expected until the rainy winter season arrives in May, but it will be several months more before the dams begin to recharge even a little, and years before they fully recover. Last week, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille stated that the city had “reached the point of no return” and told residents and businesses to prepare for the worst.

Until now, the city’s primary line of defense in addressing the crisis has been to tackle consumption rates by gradually ratcheting up restrictions for water users. For months, Capetonians have been told to limit their use to about 23 gallons of water a day. For perspective, a clothes washer uses around 25 gallons per load, and the average American uses about 80-100 gallons of water per day.


Now, the city government is set to reduce Capetonians’ daily allowed usage further to 13 gallons a day, with punitive fees for properties that exceed this allowance. While the city government’s actions have so far largely been restricted to municipally provided water, the newest restrictions also limit irrigation using privately owned wells. The city government has also launched a website showing which households are over-consuming.

Even with these increasingly severe water restrictions, conservation alone has not been enough to bring consumption below the government’s target rate of 500 million litres per day. Currently, Cape Town’s citizens and visitors are consuming 20 percent more than what is needed to stave off Day Zero.


Exponential population growth in the city over the past several decades, increased servicing to impoverished areas previously lacking water, inefficient and overburdened infrastructure, and wasteful practices have all depleted the effective water supply. Cape Town’s extreme inequality, and the legacy of spatially-inefficient planning policies, also play out in the water numbers, with the city’s wealthier, low density, single-residence suburban communities accounting for 55 percent of overall potable water usage. Municipal metering figures show disproportionately high consumption rates of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Cape Town. In contrast, the city’s vast, impoverished, informal settlements, which constitute the bulk of the population, use under 5 percent of total municipal water.

Boosting and Diversifying Water Sources

With water conservation alone not meeting targets, the city government is turning to several other supply-side strategies in order to avoid the worst-case scenario. These include increasing the use of recycled water, tapping into ground water resources, and building desalination plants. While this coastal city overlooks the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and sits atop significant aquifers, by and large these sources have yet to be tapped due to the higher financial costs and energy needs that both require. This will likely soon change, as the city has redirected significant resources toward pursuing both desalination and groundwater production. With city coffers low, officials are scrambling to find ways to fund these projects.


The city government faces numerous obstacles to bringing on new water production, not least because many projects began well after the crisis was apparent. While city officials are furiously pursuing development of desalination plants and new wells to beat the Day Zero deadline, none of these new projects have been completed to date and most are behind schedule.

Some of these strategies may results in negative health and environmental impacts. For instance, a group of academic researchers from regional institutions recently published research indicating that untreated sewage effluent discharged by the city’s sewers into the ocean may contaminate the water sources from the city government’s proposed desalination sites. Other research indicates that the desalination process also has the potential to adversely affect coastal marine systems, among other environmental concerns.


Meanwhile, tapping into the region’s groundwater presents its own risks. Farmers from Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area, a vast tract of peri-urban farmland that supplies much of the city’s fresh produce, fear that higher consumption of the area’s aquifers will lower the water table. These farms, and many others in the region, rely on aquifers to irrigate their crops. Consequently, Cape Town may be endangering its own food supply by exploiting groundwater reserves. The availability of fresh healthy produce could impact the health of a large portion of impoverished Capetonians who are already suffering from extreme food insecurity. Running rivers and wetlands could also dry up, affecting the ecological systems that rely on them.


Preparing for the Worst

What happens to Capetonians if the taps run dry in April? According to the city government’s critical water shortages disaster plan, municipal water will be rationed out to residents and users from 200 water collection sites throughout the city. Local and national police and defense forces will be deployed to ensure safety and order at these sites.


Exceptions to loss of service will be made for hospitals and other critical services, as well as for the poorest informal communities, many of which already receive water through communal spigots.

There are a few places to look for hope. While the severity of the water crisis facing Cape Town is historic, it is not the first time the city has had to tighten its belt in response to drought. In the late 1990s and 2000s, facing significant drought conditions, the city implemented water conservation measures that effectively flatlined consumption, even as Cape Town’s population continued to grow. The city’s ability to respond to those crises indicates that changes in consumption can make a difference.


Similarly, the city can implement supply-side strategies in a manner that is integrated with broader water cycles. One innovative example of smarter aquifer use is the artificial aquifer recharge program in place in the city’s northern suburb of Atlantis. This forty-year-old system, implemented to handle an outlying former township area, effectively treats and filters wastewater back into the aquifer in order to recharge groundwater supplies and reduce salinization of the water table. The system has been upheld as a model for sustainable aquifer use.

Whether South Africa’s Mother City can contain the crisis, and whether the solutions are long-term fixes or stopgap measures, remains to be seen. Mayor de Lille recently exhorted her constituents that “this is the moment where we can bring about the fundamental behaviour change that is needed to save us all from running out of water.” The next day, signaling a lack of confidence in her capacity to manage the problem, the city council voted to remove her from overseeing the drought response efforts.


Christian Alexander is a Cape Town-based sustainability and urban planning specialist and U.S.-licensed attorney.