Cape Town is about to run out of water

Cape Town – the city I was born in and called home for some 20 years – is now just 73 days from running out of water. The ominously named “Day Zero” is currently scheduled for 12 April 2018: the day the taps will be turned off.

If this article sounds like something out of an Armageddon story, that’s because it may well be. Cape Town, one of the world’s most visually striking cities, is about to experience what life is like when no more water comes out of the tap. It’s something that most people in the world’s big cities never need to give much thought to, but right now it’s the only thing that people who live in Cape Town are thinking about.

Damned to drought

Cape Town lies at the edge of a coastal plateau, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the south. To the north-east are the mountains from which the city gets most of its water, with mid-year winter rain flowing into several large dams that usually feed Cape Town through the dry summer.

But now it hasn’t rained properly for some three years, with 2017 the driest on record. Climatologists are not only calling it a drought, they’re saying that Cape Town is going to continue getting drier. The semi-desert on the other side of those mountains is closing in on the city, and the fertile coastal plateau – the reason Cape Town was originally established almost 400 years ago – is slowly drying up.

The effect is compounded by the fact that the city’s population has grown rapidly over the past decade or so, with four million people now living in the greater metropolitan area (the unofficial number may be substantially higher). There is simply no longer enough water to go around.

The murky waters of politics

As of writing this article, the dams are at 27% and Capetonians have been told to reduce their daily tap water consumption to 50 litres or less per person from 1st February. But only around 40% of the city’s residents have been meeting targets, which there is little anyone can do to enforce. So it’s no longer a question of “if the taps run dry” – now it’s just about waiting and preparing for the inevitable. People have stopped flushing toilets, they’re queuing for hours to fill containers at the city’s few natural springs, and they’re stockpiling bottled water from wherever they can find it. Some supermarkets have now started to limit water purchases to 20 litres per person.

All this of course begs the question: why did nobody see this coming? There are many places in the world – some far drier than Cape Town – that have made adequate provisions to supply fresh water. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, the United Arab Emirates is not far behind, and Spain is also up at the top (The Canary Islands get almost all their water from desalination).

While Cape Town is now scrambling to build small desalination plants and tap groundwater sources, it’s almost certainly a case of too little too late. The city can ultimately only blame itself for not acting sooner, but the council is no doubt pointing the finger at the country’s African National Congress-led government. The ANC is purportedly bitter about losing its Cape Town seats in a recent election cycle. Combine this rancour with the ruling party’s famous penchant for graft, greed and cronyism, and you have a recipe for South Africa at its inefficient and ill-prepared worst.

When the taps run dry

Whatever the politics may be, it’s Cape Town’s residents who are now suffering. When the dams reach a level of 13.5%, the city authorities will shut off the water supply to all but the most critical medical and commercial services. Citizens will then have to queue at a limited number of groundwater collection points for an allocated 25-litres each per day. Beyond the personal inconvenience and hardship, the impact could be massive: business closures, social upheaval, spread of disease, violence, mass migration – the list goes on…

The fact is that nobody knows quite how bad it’s going to get. Perhaps the citizens of Cape Town will be gifted a week of freak rains that come early and fill the dams enough to survive until winter. But a more likely scenario is that the worst is still to come.

It’s hard to find anything positive in this dire situation. The only thing I can think of is that it’s good Capetonians have finally woken up to a problem that isn’t going to go away. But for now, the only real silver lining for Cape Town lies in the clouds themselves.