Home Emergency Management News Cape Town Unable to Fix Water Crisis, Despite Emergency Restrictions

Cape Town Unable to Fix Water Crisis, Despite Emergency Restrictions


By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

Like a frightening scene in a science fiction movie, the day when Cape Town, South Africa, runs out of water is rapidly approaching, and no one seems to be able to prevent it. So far, severe water restrictions have failed to stem rapidly declining water levels in the city’s reservoirs.

According to CNN, Cape Town has less than 10% of its usable water remaining. The Theewaterskloof Dam, which creates the largest water reservoir supplying the Western Cape Province, is at 13.7% capacity.

Cape Town Will Become First Modern Major City to Run Dry

This city of four million people on the south Atlantic coast “will become the first modern major city in the world to completely run dry,” writes Aryn Baker in Time magazine. As a resident of the city, she is an eyewitness to the impending disaster, ominously called Day Zero.

Helen Zille, former Cape Town mayor and the current premier of South Africa's Western Cape province, writes in South Africa’s Daily Maverick: "The question that dominates my waking hours now is: When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy? And if there is any chance of still preventing it, what is it we can do?"

Zille cites three recent crisis indicators that have moved sharply “in the wrong direction.”

  1. Cape Town’s water usage went up again in January to over 600 million liters (150 million gallons) a day, despite efforts to reduce that number to below 500 million liters (125 million gallons).
  2. The South African Weather Service admits it cannot predict when rain will come, saying “previous forecasting models have proved useless in the era of climate change.”
  3. Day Zero has moved from the realm of possibility to probability. “There is no way in which water augmentation schemes will compensate for our ongoing failure to curb demand sufficiently in the short term.”

The National Parliament tweeted Zille that “Provision of bulk water to municipalities is the sole responsibility of the Department of Water and Sanitation. Municipalities that are water services authorities in term of the National Water Act are responsible for cleaning and providing water to the end user.”

The water disaster is not unique to Cape Town, according to Baker. She says, “Climatologists at the University of Cape Town say man-made global warming is a likely factor in the continued drought and that we, like many other cities around the globe, are facing a drier future with increasingly unpredictable rains. What is happening in Cape Town might not be an outlier. It could happen to you, too.”

It’s not as if the city had no warning that its taps would one day dry up. On April 26, 1990, the Cape Times newspaper ran a story under the headline, “City will run out of water ‘in 17 years’” or in 2007. The current predicted “Day Zero” is May 11, 2018.

The National Parliament initially recommended construction of a sewage-recycling plant to augment supplies from the city’s six rainfall-fed dams. Instead, Baker writes, the city embarked on a “laudable conservation effort” that proved insufficient. “Now the city is playing catch-up by installing expensive desalinization plants to purify seawater and scrambling to tap the underground aquifer.”

Only Two of Seven Water Augmentation Projects Expected to Be Running by Day Zero

Unfortunately, only two of seven water augmentation projects are expected to be running by Day Zero. City officials have said residents of townships and settlements will be exempted from Day Zero plans to shut down the taps. Baker explains that the exemption stems from officials’ “fear of massive social unrest” in the largely black and poor neighborhoods.

She blames the current situation on “a combination of poor planning, three years of drought and spectacularly bad crisis management.” When the water levels began to decline during the drought, “the default response by city leadership was a series of vague exhortations to be ‘water aware.’”

The current austere water restrictions and the water-saving tips Capetowners share online seem to be helping a bit. Late last month, the leader of Cape Town’s ruling Democratic Alliance party announced that residents’ efforts were having an impact. However, he warned that unless consumption fell by at least 25%, “Day Zero was still inevitable.”

As for Baker, she plans to stay in Cape Town. Other residents and businesses are planning to move to other parts of the country, Europe or the United States.

“I, for one, plan to stick it out,” Baker writes. “After all, for the large number of South Africans who don’t live in the mainly white and affluent suburbs that still define Cape Town 25 years after the end of apartheid, Day Zero is just another day in the life. Many township residents already line up at a central tap to get their daily water supply.”

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."