The Cape Town Water Crisis: What You Need to Know

Falling Water Levels at Theewaterskloof Dam, Western Cape
 Liesel Kershoff/ Getty Images

Beloved for its spectacular scenery, its rich history and its enviable restaurant scene, Cape Town is one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations. However, the Mother City is currently in the grip of a crippling water crisis. Historically, the city has coped with periods of drought through careful water management, which helps it to survive until its dams are refilled by better rains the following year. Now though, Cape Town is experiencing its third consecutive year of drought, leading to the worst water shortage in 100 years.

Here's a look at how the drought came about, and what it means for residents and visitors alike. 

Timeline of the Drought

The current water crisis began in 2015, when the levels in Cape Town’s six major dams fell from 71.9% full to 50.1% full 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, however, 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 up to 50mm of rainfall and extreme flooding in certain 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. This catastrophic eventuality has now been named “Day Zero”.


The Reality of Day Zero 

Day Zero has been classified by Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille as the day that dam storage reaches 13.5%. If this happens, the majority of taps across the city will be turned off, and residents will be forced to queue at water collection sites across Cape Town to collect a daily allocation of 25 liters per person. The sites will be supervised by members of the police and military; however, it seems inevitable that public health, safety and the economy will all be affected as a result. This worst-case scenario is currently predicted to begin on April 29th 2018, although there is still hope that it can be avoided.


Natural Causes of the Crisis

Experts believe that the current crisis was initially triggered by the 2014-2016 El Niño, a weather phenomenon that causes a rise in ocean temperatures across the equatorial Pacific. As a result of these rising temperatures, El Niño affects weather patterns all over the globe—and in Southern Africa, 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 as a direct result of El Niño. 

The effects of El Niño were also compounded by increased temperatures and reduced rainfall experienced 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 and more frequently, giving the city’s water supplies less of a chance to recover from periods of drought.


Exacerbating Factors

Cape Town’s rapidly expanding population is also part of the problem. Between 1995 and 2018, the city saw a 55% population increase from 2.4 million to 4.3 million people, while water storage has increased by only 15% in the same amount of time. 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, has hindered attempts by the municipal and provincial governments to pre-empt the water crisis.


In 2015, for example, 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 Cape Town Mayor for disaster relief funding were also rejected. According to local news sources, mismanagement, debt and corruption within the national Department of Water and Sanitation is also to blame. In particular, a failure to properly allocate agricultural water use at the beginning of the drought helped to accelerate the initial depletion of Cape Town's dam levels.


How Will It Affect My Visit?

For resident Capetonians, Level 6 water restrictions mean a ban on irrigation, watering, filling private swimming pools and washing vehicles with municipal drinking water. Personal water consumption is limited to 87 liters per day, and households that use more than 10,500 liters of water per month are liable to fines of up to R10,000. The agricultural sector is expected to reduce water consumption by 60% (compared with pre-2015 usage). Visitors will primarily be affected by the restriction’s stipulation that commercial properties (including hotels) reduce usage by 45%.


For many establishments, this means introducing water-saving measures such as banning baths, fitting showers with devices that reduce water flow and changing linens only when necessary. Many luxury hotels have closed their steam rooms and hot tubs, while most hotel swimming pools are empty. In addition, like Cape Town’s permanent residents, visitors may find that supplies of bottled water are increasingly hard to come by. As agricultural production suffers as a result of water restrictions, food prices and availability are also affected.


How You Can Help

From airline announcements prior to touch-down in Cape Town to signage in public spaces and hotel lobbies, ways that you can help conserve water are being broadcasted throughout the city. Most of these focus on personal water-saving tactics, including limiting your shower time to two minutes, turning off the tap whilst brushing your teeth and limiting the frequency with which you flush the toilet. The tourism board’s Save Like a Local campaign gives a full list of ways that you can help, while this handy calculator helps you to make sure that you’re not exceeding your 87 liter per day allowance.


Before booking your hotel, make sure to enquire about the water-saving measures that it has in place. 

The Future

With Day Zero fast approaching, there is no doubt that the current water situation in Cape Town is dire. The permanence of factors including climate change and the ever-increasing South African population mean that the problems faced by Cape Town over the last three years are likely to become the norm; and yet, despite the ineptitude of national government, the city itself has one of the most effective water management programs in the world. 

Plans to increase Cape Town’s water supplies are underway, with seven projects ranging from new desalination plants to groundwater extraction schemes expected to supply an additional 196 million liters of water per day between February and July 2018. It is hoped that these measures (combined with diligent adherence to the Level 6 restrictions) will be enough to prevent the specter of Day Zero from becoming a reality.

Should I Still Visit?

In the meantime, it’s important for visitors to remember that the things that make Cape Town special—from its world-class restaurants to its idyllic beaches—remain the same.  

The minor inconveniences experienced by tourists as a result of the water crisis are a small price to pay for the wonder of a visit to the Mother City. Even during peak season, tourists increase Cape Town’s population by just 1-3%, and therefore make little difference to the city’s overall water consumption (assuming they adhere to restrictions). However, the income generated by your visit is needed now more than ever before. So, instead of canceling your trip to Cape Town, simply be mindful of the drought and make sure to do your bit to help.