The Water Crisis In Cape Town


In Cape Town, South Africa there is an ongoing water crisis which initially led officials to declare that the water supply will run out on April 22, 2018. Since then the date is now April 12. The situation has been exacerbated by a three-year drought, declared to be the worst in over a century. The rate of climate change, along with the rapidly increasing metropolitan population, which is already at 4 million, has also been identified as major contributors to this crisis. According to the mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, the water usage by residents has not dropped significantly. And despite lowering water pressure to prolong the water supply, water usage remains 86 million litres above the goal. With the civic government stating that residents are not doing enough to change their consumption, on February 1, 2018, restrictions of 50 litres of water per person, per day, will be set. A statement from the mayor’s office says that “[i]t is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.” It also stated that “[w]e can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.” Tap water is currently used for household needs, but there are concerns by residents regarding drinking water. Some residents have raised complaints about the water, including one who stated, “[t]hey claim it is fine to drink, but the kids were having tummy issues.” These concerns and issues have led some residents to travel to the Newlands Spring to get an allotted supply of water, as a result, there are now long lines at the spring. This crisis occurs despite Cape Town being known for having strong environmental policies, including a good record of water supply management. The recurring droughts represent the very real risk of climate change and the massive challenge of preserving the water supply. A policy that is being discussed as a possible contributor to the current crisis is conservation measures to preserve the water supply, including fixing leaks and old pipes, as well as installing water meters, which does not increase and diversify the water supply. Six dams that depend on rainfall currently provide Cape Town with water, which is in short supply because of the severe droughts occurring in this arid region.

Despite the city of Cape Town earning recognition for its green environmental policies, this crisis represents the high impact and powerful failure of urban planning and poor decision making. The approach of conservation, without looking extensively into alternative water sources and supplies, indicates that current and prior policies were not doing enough to consider the long-term impacts of global climate change. Mike Miller, the former director of South Africa’s Department of  Water Affairs from 1997-2005 said that “[n]ature isn’t particularly willing to compromise.” He added that “[t]here will be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get hammered.” Political tensions have arisen as different parties, including the national government and the local government, blame one another. David Olivier, studying climate change at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute, said that “[t]he national government has dragged its feet.” The national government does indeed control the water supply to Cape Town and other areas, and their failure to limit water to farmers is cited by experts as something that intensified the current problem. Kevin Winter, a water expert at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute, did point to control issues by the city, stating that Cape Town focused on building temporary desalination units instead of tapping into local aquifers.

The significant social inequalities that are present in Cape Town are evident in this crisis, where there is a stark division between those living in poverty, where communal taps provide water that is shared amongst many, and the exceedingly wealthy, who use water for recreational purposes such as swimming pools. This shows that trying to reduce water consumption by residents is much less effective. More affluent residents can install water tanks and other equipment to alleviate the impact of this crisis on their lives, but that is not an option for many others. For example, moving containers of water from collection sites is a major obstacle for those who lack a vehicle. The current response to the crisis wholly fails to consider the issues that underlines the crisis along socioeconomic lines. The current approach is not doing enough to assist those who are having difficulties with the current water crisis and who may have even greater difficulties once the water supply of Cape Town runs out.

With the issues that Cape Town is facing, there is an urgent crisis that requires a comprehensive solution, beyond the calls to lower water consumption, which has not been very effective up to this point. In the development of a potential solution, the requirements and needs of all the residents of Cape Town, including those who are impoverished, is highly important to maintaining order and upholding social cohesion. The hardships and suffering that issues of water security can bring to the residents of Cape Town are important to fully understand in the development of a comprehensive and effective plan to mitigate the effects of the crisis. If the water supply is indeed about to run out around April 12, it is of the utmost importance that there are plans and programs in place to help those who already have little access to water, including drinking water. The security and quality of drinking water is another important manner that must be addressed, as currently there are residents who are noticing that the remaining water is not very drinkable, despite officials insisting otherwise. Ensuring water security for the most vulnerable is an important way of maintaining and building social cohesion and a civic trust in various institutions. This is also important to minimizing potential civil unrest and increased social tensions that a resource-based crisis can create and perpetuate.

Addressing climate change is an important overarching component to mitigating the worst impacts of the increasingly intense droughts that are occurring in South Africa and other places around the world. Addressing climate change via structural changes, as well as emission changes represents a crucial mechanism with which current and future security problems can be minimized and reduced. The health impacts of climate change, which includes the droughts that have severely threatened Cape Town’s water supply, may be widespread and far-reaching. In the management of this crisis and the prevention of future issues, it is imperative that there is a continued and intensified fight against climate change, by all South African power brokers and stakeholders, including local and national governments.