South Africa’s 9/11: Cape Town Water Crisis


16 April 2018. The day in which one of Africa’s most affluent cities, Cape Town, is predicted to run out of water. After a one-in-384-year drought and a 79% increase in population growth since 1994, according to The Guardian, South Africa’s second-largest city has been affected by climate change a decade before forecasted. According to The Economist, only 26% of the city’s water supply remains. This is much to the horror of South African politician Helen Zille as expressed in a BBC Newsnight interview, who described the current water crisis as a challenge as great as the 9/11 terror attacks. The aforementioned date termed ‘Day Zero’ is not the complete running out of water. Instead, it is a government imposed day to turn off pipeline water to Cape Town’s 4.3 million inhabitants. Predicted to occur in 10 weeks, it will be enforced when the dam’s water level falls to 13.5%. The Economist notes, that this is because if the dam level falls below 10% it will be hard to extract any water risking the lives of millions. In lieu of piped water, Cape Town authorities are establishing 200 points across the city where residents will collect their water rations of 25 litres per person per day, under armed guard. Making Cape Town, according to The Economist, “the first sizeable city to turn off the taps.”

Quoted in The Guardian the Head of Cape Town’s Disaster Operations Centre Greg Pillay described this as “the biggest crisis” in his 40-year career, as the city was “prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario.” However, all previous measures have had limited effect making Day Zero a reality. At the end of last winter, a restriction of 87 litres a day per person was implemented, but according to The Economist, only 41% of residents complied. This led Mayor Patricia de Lille to declare a “point of no return,” justifying the harsh measures of Day Zero and this January reducing water allowance to 50 litres per person and enforcing harsher fines for not complying.

January’s strategy has seen an increase of Capetonians complying. For example, Sports 24 noted that during last weekend’s Cape Town 10s event, no municipal water was used as it was being sponsored by a Swedish company, Bluewater, that sourced all 10,000 litres of clean water needed from a non-city source. Similarly, there have been reports of hotels removing bathroom plugs and hand sanitizer dispensers replacing taps. These positive steps do mean that it is possible Day Zero may be pushed back to May and the start of rainy season.

On reflection, though the strategy is limited. Water restrictions and desalination plants do not reduce panic, they increase it and the potential for conflict is also increasing. According to The Guardian “freshwater springs now require 24-hour guard…and there have been sporadic reports of fights breaking out in the lengthy queues.” Reportedly class divides, homophobia and racism are increasing. Even the government is conflicted “with the DA seeking to remove Ms de Lille over corruption allegations (which she denies),” according to The Economist. Therefore, a significant change in strategy is required to maintain stability. For example, imposing restrictions on wine production suggested by The Times or Human Rights Watch’s strategy to educate the population about the “Respect for the Right to Water.”

Overall, this crisis is part of a worrying pattern of climate change related droughts and floods. São Paulo faced something similar in 2015, and according to National Geographic Melbourne reported that they could run out of water in less than a decade, additionally 21 million residents of Mexico City only have running water for part of the day. The strategies that Cape Town implements will be a learning opportunity for all, but importantly this crisis demands compliance with the Paris Agreement and the Good Practice Guidelines for Water Data Management Policy launched last year by the World Bank and the UN, so together countries can transparently work together to reduce conflict from climate change related disasters.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.