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Why is Cape Town running out of water?

With Cape Town’s water crisis, the world is getting a preview of what a thirstier future may look like.

Cape Town, a metropolitan region of 4 million people on South Africa’s southwestern coast, has for months been inching toward “Day Zero” – the day it runs out of drinkable water.

How can this affluent city, South Africa’s second-largest behind Johannesburg and a major international travel destination, find itself in such a situation? As is often the case with environmental crises, it’s a confluence of many factors, some natural and some man-made.

“One conclusion I make is that these kinds of problems are often a case of several consecutive years of drought where the combination of missing reliable long-term forecasts and a lack of will to adjust to the situation until it’s a clear fact is making the matter worse,” said Stefan Söderberg, head of hydrological research and forecast at Thomson Reuters. “In the situation we are with climate change, an increased ‘suspiciousness’ and swifter responses (i.e. saving water) are needed.”

People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb as fears over the city's water crisis grow in Cape Town, South Africa, January 25, 2018.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb as fears over the city’s water crisis grow in Cape Town, South Africa, January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Cape Town’s water crisis

On February 5, local officials announced “Day Zero,” once anticipated to hit in April, would likely arrive in mid-May. If that happens, taps will literally be turned off and Cape Town residents will have to collect water allotments at one of 200 locations around the area, each of which will have to accommodate 200,000 residents. It’s not a situation anyone wants to see come to pass, but may be in the cards anyhow due to at least four major elements:

In a parched climate, increasing demand for water

While it’s hard to identify any one factor as the primary culprit, increasing demand for fresh water has to be near the top of the list. South Africa, like much of the developed world, is experiencing a trend toward urbanization. The Cape Town metropolitan area has been growing and is expected to add some 1.5 million more people over the next decade. Overall, its population has almost doubled since 1996.

Competing with the swelling population are the agricultural operations – grain- and fruit-growing farms, cattle ranches and Cape Town’s famous vineyards – outside the city itself. Growth and supply strain like Cape Town is experiencing would be a test for any municipality.

Missed water management opportunities

That Cape Town needs to be careful with its water supply has long been known. Water restrictions of some kind have been in place since 2005. While they have been getting “progressively tighter,” not all modern efforts to handle the water shortage  pragmatically have worked out well.

In his June 2017 paper “Understanding the origins of Cape Town’s water crisis,” Mike Muller,a visiting adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, points out several missteps made within the past decade or so, including the failure to implement water rationing on agricultural operations at the onset of the current drought in 2015 and a slowness to react sufficiently to declining water levels in reservoirs outside the city.

Cape Town lights up as dusk falls over the city's backdrop Table Mountain. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Cape Town lights up as dusk falls over the city’s backdrop Table Mountain. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A political chess match

The Western Cape, the province in which Cape Town is located, is governed by the liberal Democratic Alliance. That makes it the only provincial government not run by the African National Congress (ANC), which has long dominated national politics.

As Reuters noted in a commentary piece, “many ANC politicians would love to see the liberal ruling Democratic Alliance tarnished by failure in the Cape, perhaps opening the way to the ANC recapturing the province in 2019. Accusations and insults have been flowing thick and fast between the local, provincial and national tiers of government, each with its own legislatively determined role in the water procurement process.”

Weather and climate change

The Cape Town region is entering its third year of drought. In August 2017, the close of last year’s rainy season, The Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town spelled it out explicitly: “The total rainfall at the Cape Town airport (CTA) is so far below that experienced in the same part of the year during the last 40 years.”  The Africa Standardized Precipitation Index shows rainfall levels have been below normal for the past several months, meaning skies aren’t likely to provide a reprieve any time soon.

Drought is a complex phenomenon and isn’t necessarily indicative of climate change. However, the CSAG’s analysis of historic rainfall and drought trends “should make one think hard about anthropogenic climate change as a possible driver of the trend.”

A thirstier future

While Cape Town may be the most immediate and pressing example of a major city finding itself without enough water, it certainly isn’t the only one. Citing United Nations information, Reuters reports that “water scarcity already affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population and is expected to rise due to global warming, with one in four people projected to face chronic or recurring shortages by 2050.” That means cities like Melbourne, Australia; São Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City; and Amman, Jordan might soon find themselves where Cape Town is today.

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