Cape Town: Lessons Learned

Cape Town: Lessons Learned

June 2018

On April 26, 1990, a Cape Times article predicted Cape Town's water to run out in seventeen years. High-school geography students were being taught about the changing weather pattern and the limitations of the Dam systems. At higher educational levels, civil and environmental engineers were expressing concerns about water shortages and the lack of waste-water treatment facilities. The prediction about Cape Town running dry was off by ten years, some of which can be accredited to sophisticated water conservation policies implemented by the government. The city relies on the nearby Table Mountains for trapping the onshore breeze and making rain that fills its rivers, dams and aquifers - creating an oasis in the arid lands. This has allowed the city to grow into one of the wealthiest and fast-growing in Africa, with the population growing by 50% in the last decade.

While steps were taken to bring down the per-capita usage of water consumption, the water management is based on the hopes of a good seasonal rainfall.  With climate change disrupting global weather patterns and with an over-reliance on rain-water, Cape Town was left unprepared for its driest period in recorded history.  If the drought continues, Cape Town will likely have to reckon with "Day Zero".


Current Status of Day Zero

Day Zero signifies the time when the water level in the dams drop to 13.5%.  At this point, water supply to residents, schools and businesses will be cut off completely.  Water will be rationed to residents at twenty-five litres per person per day at 200 collection sites spread across the city.

In February this year, it was estimated that Day Zero will occur sometime in late April.  The looming crisis was to be an example for the disrupting and damaging effect of climate change on urban localities. The plans for the eventuality included bringing in the military to guard the rationing zones in case of violence and chaos erupting in the city.

The doomsday, thankfully, wasn't to be.  The government set out strict restrictions on water usage, limiting the consumption to fifty litres per person. People disobeying the limits receive heavy fines. Police officers patrol the streets looking for suspects wasting water for chores like watering the garden or washing

their cars. Community shaming of those who are cheating on their limits has also contributed to the decrease in water consumption. Farmers have also diverted their water to help the city needs.

The combined effort of the citizens reduced the water consumption by half and initially pushed Day Zero to 9th June and more recently to 2019, as some of the reservoirs began to replenish. The fate of avoiding Day Zero still rests on the year-end rainy season, but effective conservation strategies present a method of averting the problem.


Mitigation Measures

The mitigation effort to fight the drought began early this year, with a team setup by the current President Cyril Ramaphosa. Acknowledging the real effects of climate change on four million residents of Cape Town, the team implemented plans that would go on to include the fifty-litre cap per resident per day.  But, water conservation isn't going to solve the problem if the drought persists.

Plans to look at alternative sources of clean water have led below the ground towards aquifers.  For example: The Cape Flat Aquifer can supply eighty million litres of water per day and the Table Mountain Aquifer can supply about forty million litres per day. Some aquifers can be recharged with rain-water or recycle-water for later usage. However, the consequence of this plan can be disastrous to some of the endemic plant and animal life found in the region designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.

There are sixteen small-scale desalination plants under construction that are expected to provide sixteen million litres of water per day. Most are close to completion but behind schedule for operations. Water recycling is expected to provide another ten million litres per day.


Cities Facing Similar Risks

The water crisis in Cape Town is not an isolated phenomenon. With increased urbanisation, cities are expected to grow in population, putting a stress on its water resources. These metropolitan areas are deemed most at risk from water shortages.


  1. Bangalore: The rapid development of the Silicon Valley of India has come at the cost of catchment lakes built during the foundation of the city. Close to 85% of the lakes have been covered to provide land for infrastructure development, while large parts of the city are drying up its underground water resources. Lakes that do exist are extremely polluted.
  2. Beijing: With 40% of its water polluted, the twenty million residents of Beijing are at extreme risk of water shortages. Ground-water, which accounts for the 75% of the water used, is drying up due to urban development and the concrete sealing of the surface - preventing the replenishment of the underground water-table.
  3. Sao Paulo: Home to twenty million people and the largest city in the western hemisphere, had a drought last year that exposed the vulnerability of Sao Paulo.  Residents had to suffer twelve-hour water cut-offs last year, opening the division between the rich who could afford water-tankers and the poor who could not.
  4. Jakarta: Frequent droughts and the illegal access of aquifers have depleted Jakarta's groundwater. Urbanisation has curbed the replenishment of the aquifers resulting in acute water shortages in the city. The problems are exacerbated by the rising sea levels, which could in the future consume surface water in its path.
  5. Cairo: While the Nile provides 97% of Cairo's water, it is also where industrial, residential and agricultural wastes are dumped. The rising pollution level is making the river water inconsumable and by 2025, the City is expected to have a major water crisis.


Lessons learned

Cape Town is Africa's greenest city and has completed a fair amount of work in water conservation. Yet, the city finds it hard to cope against the drought brought on by climate change. Cape Town showed how unready human civilization when faced with unpredictable weather phenomena, some of which will escalate in the coming years.   Along with combating climate change, humans need to also prepare for the uncertainty it brings. 

After air, water is the most vital resource for human life and it is important that this resource is managed effectively. Pollution threatens the scarce fresh water resources - some of which are rapidly depleting. The risks of water shortages span from civil unrest to global wars, but if there's one positive from Cape Town, it is that people can work towards a solution through sound conservation and planning, no matter how hard the goal might be. However, the relative success of the water conservation measures, is having the drawback of Cape Town residents becoming cynical and increasingly thinking that Day Zero was never real but a mere a ploy by the authorities. This has to be carefully managed if the current ongoing efforts are to be effectively sustained.

*Image Credit: Residents with their jugs, waiting for spring water in Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa. Evan Hallein, Shutterstock