The full story behind Cape Town's drought

Konstantin Sheiko
February 13, 2018

Tourists visiting Cape Town have been told to limit showers to ninety seconds only, flush the toilet as little as possible, and swim in the sea rather than pools, as the city experiences its worst drought in over a century. The South African city imposed water restrictions on its residents and visitors last year, but as Day Zero, the date when taps are turned off and all water distributed at rationed checkpoints grows nearer, officials have ordered yet tighter conditions on consumption. Currently Day Zero is forecast for several upcoming dates, including April 16, May 11, and June 4 2018 depending upon the source - the latest being the most optimistic.   

Last week the daily allowance for the city’s four million residents was slashed from 87 litres to 50 litres. Cape Town, South Africa’s largest tourism destination, is immensely popular with western tourists. The city has been voted as one of the best cities in the world to visit for years now. Nearly two thirds of the city’s international arrivals come from Europe. Needless to say, the city’s budget is relying big time on an income that it derives from international tourism. However, latest measures adopted by the government may as well block the tourist traffic.     

Hotels have removed bath plugs, bars and restaurants have turned off automatic flush systems on urinals, and car hire firms have stopped washing their vehicles. Posters and signs urging restraint on water use have been put up around the city, especially in tourist hotspots, including Cape Town International Airport. According to Cape Town’s tourism office, “We need you to save like a local, and keep your usage to under 50 litres a day. You can still have a fantastic holiday without wasting resources, and we ask that you take special care when you visit.” Just for a comparison, average water use per person in the UK is 150 litres.  

The tourist board is encouraging visitors to select only “water-wise” accommodations, and has posted a list of hotels to have introduced water-saving measures. It has also issued a list of various ways the visitors can help alleviating the water crisis, including staying in accommodation that has water-saving and contingency plans in place. The visitors are encouraged to call hotels and ask before booking in order to know exactly what to expect. It is also recommended to re-use the towels instead of asking for a new one daily, and flush the toilet as little as possible. Apparently, each flush uses between 6 and 14 litres, depending on the kind of toilet. People should use a cup to rinse the mouth when they are brushing teeth rather than letting the taps run. The showers should be limited to 90 seconds, and bathing strictly avoided. Washing clothes is recommended when there is a full load’s worth of laundry, and use a dishwasher to clean dishes, also making sure it is run only when it is full. The pools have run dry, and so taking a dip in the ocean and tidal pools instead of swimming pools is the proffered option - the authorities even hint that this might even be a viable substitute for a shower.   

You might be wondering as to what is the cause of the impending disaster? According to city authorities, “insufficient rainfall and fast declining dam levels have led to the current unprecedented water crisis”. The water supply of Cape Town, which is located in a “water scarce region” in the Western cape. The city is fed by six dams in and around the city, all of which are currently drastically low. The historic dry spell has been exacerbated by a booming population and millions of domestic and international tourists and visitors.   

In 2014, the dam levels were at 87.9 per cent full. After three years of consecutive falls, they are today at 25.8 per cent, but the bottom 10 per cent of the dam is deemed unusable. In short, the current drought is a catastrophe for the city and its inhabitants, according to the head of the University of Cape Town’s urban water management department. Though the city is scrambling to get more water in its system using groundwater and desalination plants, many frustrated residents accuse the city of mismanaging their water supply.   

Besides purely natural causes, the Cape Town water crisis has political routes, too. National government systems are notoriously corrupt in SA, and they haven't been running smoothly for decades. Cape Town’s water crisis could have been mitigated through appropriate water allocations, making more water available to the city. With timely responses to disaster declarations, water augmentation infrastructure could have been up and running already. It is worth pointing out that Cape Town has demonstrated some of the best water saving levels in the world so far. But its supply dams are being hit by national government’s bungled water allocations to agriculture.   

When Day Zero hits, it would mark the moment the Western Cape’s Big Six dams fall below 13.5 per cent capacity. When the water falls beneath the 10 per cent line it is no longer drinkable, meaning there is actually less water available than it might seem. At this point, the city would turn off the taps to residential areas and all water would be limited to 25 litres per person distributed at checkpoints, monitored by the police or army, and within perimeter fences. The situation snowballs due to insufficient supply of bottled water in the city. The stores sell out their delivery supply in less than 30 minutes, and are unable to restock for days. The situation is even worse in Cape Town townships where people cannot afford buying bottled water at all, with prices spiking out of control.   

In a worst-case scenario water rationing could last for three months. The city promises that they will continuously evaluate and fine-tune these measures in the lead-up to Day Zero and in the days that follow. “The act of collecting water will be a massive inconvenience to Capetonians - if we don’t want to queue, we must save water now.” According to the city’s contingency planning, such rationing, known as Phase 2, would be followed by Phase 3, or “full-scale disaster implementation”. “Non-surface drinking water supplies, sourced from groundwater abstraction from various aquifers and spring water, will be available for drinking purposes only,” the city says. 

The Western Cape government has urged residents to “get creative” with new ways to save water. “Our water security is vital for almost everything we do, which is why it's important that we all work together to ease demand on our water supply,” it said. Officials have said the drought has already led to cancellations from tourists. According to Enver Duminy, chief executive officer at Cape Town Tourism, “There's no doubt that the knock-on effect of the water conservation crossroads we find ourselves in has had an impact on tourism”. Tolene van der Merwe, head of UK and Ireland for South African Tourism, said global warming is a “real threat that we are all responsible for taking seriously and being part of the solution”.   

The situation is marginally better elsewhere in the Western Cape. Cape Town alone has level 6B water restrictions imposed, while the popular wine region of Stellenbosch has level 5. Elsewhere in the Western Cape, other municipalities have yet lower. Cederburg, for example, to the north and popular for its Grand Canyon-esque landscapes, has level 2 restrictions imposed, while Mossel Bay, further east and on the Garden Route, has just level 1 restrictions. Some areas in the Western Cape, such as Swellendam, have imposed no restrictions.   

In order to shift attention from Cape Town to the rest of SA, the tourist officials accentuate that “it is important to remember that there are still many places across the Western Cape and South Africa more broadly that are not experiencing water restrictions such as the Garden Route and the Cape Overberg to name a few; this presents further opportunities to explore other regions if you would like.”