After a three-year drought, the worst in over a century, Cape Town’s water supply is running dry and might reach the much-feared “Day Zero” in 2019 (officials had originally estimated July 2018). As apocalyptic as it may sound, South African officials have confirmed the gravity of the situation, stating that the city will almost inevitably lose piped water to homes and businesses at some point in 2019. The water crisis has raised a number of questions regarding its causes, current implications, and future consequences, sparking a heated public debate.

The city's water supply shortage seems to be the result of a combination of physical, social, and political factors. Well below-average rainfall patterns, the increasing unpredictability of weather conditions due to anthropogenic climate change impacts, population growth, and government mismanagement have produced one of the worst urban water crises in recent memory. But which of these matters the most? And could the crisis have been mitigated, if not completely avoided?

Statistical data show a consistent decrease in annual rainfall in the Western Cape province, with 2017 as the year with the lowest rainfall since 1933. In addition, from 1995 to 2018, Cape Town’s population grew by 79 percent, which was not matched by a sufficient increase in dam storage capacity (up only about +15 percent over the same period). Population growth resulted in increased water demand at the residential level, which was nevertheless successfully kept in check by the city’s efficient water consumption management—until now, that is.

Cape Town’s water management had proven very successful in recent years. After the Department of Water and Sanitation (SAWS) issued a warning about potential shortages for the city’s water supply in 2007, the city acted quickly to decrease its water consumption in order to meet the SAWS’s 2015-16 water saving target. By implementing a series of demand management strategies, such as leak detection, free plumbing repairs for low-income households and water meter replacements, Cape Town successfully met the target three years early.

In light of the city’s water management record and environmental policies, the current water crisis comes somewhat as a surprise. Only a few years ago, dams were full to the brink and the city was awarded a special prize for its water management successes in 2014. If water management proved effective at the provincial and city level, the source of the problem seems to lay with the national government. A political disconnect between government authorities and the administration of the Western Cape (the only province run by the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition party) has resulted in a somewhat complicated relationship between the two.

Acting to the extent of their powers, both the province and the city prepared in advance for the drought that was expected in 2018. While urban water demand was being curtailed, the government failed to take any substantial action, even after the SAWS’s 2007 warning. The South African government instead decided to allocate roughly 40 percent of the Western Cape’s water supply to agriculture as late as 2015, exceeding the previous capped volume of 173.6 million cubic meters per year. In the same year the government received an application by the provincial authorities for R35 million (about US$3 million as of March 2018) to finance the drilling of boreholes to increase the available water supply, but government officials refused to take any action. In 2015 dams were still 75 percent full and the year before was characterized by water abundance. After a particularly dry winter in 2015, other requests for funds were filed by the provincial government in 2016, resulting in the recognition of five out of the thirty Western Cape municipalities as drought disaster areas (Cape Town was not included). But, as of October 2017, these municipalities had not received the requested funds.

To a certain extent, the pre-2015 water reserve surplus can partly explain the government’s refusal to fund costly water infrastructure projects. The unpredictability of rain patterns can also be used to attenuate the national authorities’ responsibility in the crisis. Although the 2007 Western Cape Water Supply (WCWSS) System Reconciliation Study produced very optimistic projections of future water supply, the study also underscored the need to implement supply-side strategies to increase drought resilience. As dam storage started falling in 2015, no investment was undertaken, not even minor ones like the augmentation of supply of the Voëlvlei Dam from the Berg River. By 2011, zealous water demand management at the local level had started producing results and this slowed the national government’s response even more.

Demand curtailing policies were effective before 2015, but proved insufficient once the crisis started worsening. The responsibility for such a lack of diversification of water supply falls both on misleading water supply projections and on the government’s slow reaction to the worsening of the drought. This last point seems to be corroborated by recent findings regarding the Department of Water and Sanitation’s internal dynamics. The Department is at the center of an ongoing investigation over its alleged dysfunction, institutional paralysis, and deteriorating financial management as advanced by the South African Water Caucus in its report on the state of the department.

The effects of the water crisis are worsening day by day and everyone in Cape Town is affected, but some more than others. The drought is expanding the already substantial divide between the rich and the poor. The wealthy are able to afford several countermeasures, such as buying enormous quantities of bottled water, hiring companies to dig wells, and buying desalination machines. Such practices are crucial in a time of extreme drought, but also expensive, and the poor are left with few options aside from cutting back on food to buy water at inflated prices.

Aridity and a drought-prone environment are characteristic of the region, meaning that authorities have been aware of the possibility of a serious water crisis. Weather unpredictability, the increased severity and length of droughts due to global warming, and a period of water abundance can be used to explain the authorities’ lack of intervention, but only to a certain extent. The national government’s reluctance to provide funding for drought relief, even after 2015, could signal a lack of zeal in dealing with the crisis on the one hand, and an over-reliance on the city’s and province’s water demand management strategies on the other. Diversification of supply and other supply-side measures might have prevented the crisis, or at least mitigated it, but the expensive nature of such strategies and the water abundance situation in the years preceding the drought hindered the implementation of these measures. Now, Cape Town’s officials must face the social and economic challenges that have resulted from the crisis. As fear of urban revolts and unrest are becoming more palpable as the drought worsens, local measures are proving insufficient, urban inequality is rising, and public opinion may ultimately hold the national government accountable for the crisis.


Author: Pietro Morabito