Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as “almost too perfect.” That’s in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.
Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city’s water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They’re calling it “Day Zero.” Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.
Cape Town’s current troubles were not necessarily foreseeable in the usual sense. Yearly long-range weather forecasts raised no alarms when they were released since they did not predict an extreme drought for that year.
The causes of the city’s water problems are, in fact, multiple. First, Cape Town’s population has risen 80 percent since 1994 (the end of white rule) to 3.75 million people putting extraordinary demands on its water system. Second, average rainfall has been gradually decreasing for decades and has reached its lowest since 1933. Comparable records before that are not available. One calculation cited in the above linked article is that the current drought is the worst in more than 300 years. Another calculation suggests the multi-year drought is a once-in-a-millennium event. Third, climate change is almost certainly increasing the likelihood of such a drought though there is no way to prove the link to this particular drought.
There may, however, be water for the city to harvest. Underground tunnels that channel runoff and storm water from the nearby mountains are one source. But that’s not an immediate solution (because of the new infrastructure that would have to be built), nor one currently being considered by the city. Small-scale containerized desalination plants are expected to be installed to take advantage of Cape Town’s seaside location. But they won’t solve the problem either. They aren’t big enough. When completed the three plants will produce a total of 9 million liters per day. The city currently consumes 600 million liters per day though its conservation plan calls for a reduction to 500 million liters.
While Cape Town’s water problems might have been broadly predictable—along the lines of “there will be a water shortage at some point”—the current shortage suggests that the effects of climate change can and will continue to surprise us with their suddenness and severity. Just to be clear, the city is not going to “run out” of water completely as some reports assert. But, on its current trajectory Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to shut off taps to most of its users because of a water supply crisis.
For now, there won’t be a “last glass of water” from Cape Town’s taps as I’ve implied in my title. But if there ever is, it will likely be consumed by one of the millions of tourists who visit Cape Town each year. As The Christian Science Monitor reports: “Some central and downtown areas could be exempt from the [water] cut-off for the sake of tourism and business.”
So tied are the city’s fortunes to visitors that the locals may be forced to watch as those visitors sip from their water glasses in Cape Town’s restaurants and cafés—while the locals stand in line for their daily water ration. Can Cape Town remain a tourist haven long under the burden of such a contrast?
Photo: “Big Bay recreational activities, just north of Bloubergstrand (Cape Town, South Africa). Picture taken by Henry Trotter, 2003” via Wikimedia Commons.