Historically, Cape Town copes with periods of drought through careful water management, which helps it to survive until its dams are refilled by better rains the next year. In 2017, Cape Town experienced its third consecutive year of drought, leading to the worst water shortage in 100 years. Here's a look at how the Cape Town Water Crisis came about, how it affected residents and visitors alike, and what the situation is now.
Timeline of the Drought
The water crisis started in 2015, when the levels in Cape Town’s six major dams fell from 71.9% to 50.1% as a result of failed rains. 2016 was another particularly dry year, with drought conditions experienced in provinces all over South Africa. While other areas of the country were granted relief by heavy rains in the winter of 2016, Cape Town’s water levels continued to fall to just 31.2%. By May 2017, that figure had reached 21.2%.
In June 2017, residents hoped that the drought might be broken by the Cape Storm, which saw extreme flooding in some areas of the city. Despite the storm's severity, the drought continued and in September, Level 5 water restrictions were introduced across the municipality—reducing personal water consumption to 87 liters per day. One month later, experts estimated that the city had just five months left before water levels were entirely depleted; then Level 6 restrictions were implemented in January 2018.
What Was Day Zero?
Day Zero was classified by Patricia de Lille, the Mayor of Cape Town at the time, as the day that dam storage reached 13.5%. If it happened, the majority of taps across the city would be turned off and residents would be forced to queue at water collection sites to receive a daily allocation of just 25 liters per person. The predicted date of Day Zero changed several times during the crisis and remained a threat into 2018.
Natural Causes of the Crisis
Experts believe that the crisis was initially triggered by the 2014-2016 El Niño. This weather phenomenon causes a rise in ocean temperatures across the equatorial Pacific and affects weather patterns all over the globe. In Southern Africa, it results in a dramatic decrease in precipitation. Rainfall in South Africa between January and December 2015 was the lowest on record since 1904, most likely due to El Niño.
The effects of El Niño were compounded by increased temperatures and reduced rainfall across South Africa as a result of climate change. In Cape Town, climate change has altered precipitation patterns in the city’s catchment areas, with rainfall coming later, more sporadically, or sometimes failing to occur at all. Worse still, less-than-average rainfall years are now occurring more frequently, giving the city’s water supplies a smaller chance of recovering from periods of drought.
Cape Town’s rapidly expanding population is also part of the problem. Between 1995 and 2018, the city's population increased by 55%, while water storage increased by only 15%. The city’s unique political situation has also been problematic. The Western Cape province—of which Cape Town is the capital—is governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s opposition party. Conflict between the DA and the ruling national party, the ANC, hindered attempts by the municipal and provincial governments to pre-empt the water crisis.
In 2015, the national government rejected a provincial request for R35 million, which would have been used to increase water supplies by drilling new boreholes and recycling water. Later appeals by the Mayor of Cape Town for disaster relief funding were also rejected. According to local news sources, mismanagement, debt, and corruption within the national Department of Water and Sanitation were also to blame.
How Were People Affected?
For resident Capetonians, Level 6 water restrictions meant a ban on irrigation, watering, filling private swimming pools, and washing vehicles with municipal drinking water. Personal water consumption was limited to 87 liters per day and households that used more than 10,500 liters of water per month were liable for fines of up to R10,000. The agricultural sector was expected to reduce water consumption by 60%. Visitors were affected by the restriction’s stipulation that commercial properties (including hotels) reduce usage by 45%.
For many establishments, this meant introducing water-saving measures such as banning baths, fitting showers with devices that reduced water flow, and changing linens only when necessary. Many luxury hotels closed their steam rooms and hot tubs, while most hotel swimming pools were emptied. In addition, visitors found that bottled water was increasingly hard to come by and food prices rose as a result of reduced agricultural production.
The Current Situation
Effective water restrictions and good rainy seasons in 2018 and 2019 have combined to bring an end to the Cape Town water crisis for now. Day Zero was postponed indefinitely on June 28 2018, and as of November 2019, the combined level of the dams supplying the city had risen to almost 85%. You can view up-to-date dam levels for yourself on the City of Cape Town Water Dashboard.
Water restrictions remain in effect, but have been downgraded to Level 3. This means that residents and visitors are allowed to use 105 liters of municipal drinking water per day, while the overall city water usage target has increased from 500 million to 650 million liters per day.
Despite the improvement in Cape Town's water situation, many of the issues that caused the 2017 crisis still exist and the entire Western Cape remains a water-scarce region with some rural areas still gripped by drought. Locals need to be careful with their water consumption and visitors should be too. The tourism board’s Save Like a Local campaign gives a full list of ways that you can help, including limiting shower time to two minutes, turning off the tap whilst brushing your teeth, and re-using hotel towels.