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.