Cape Town is running out of water. What can be done about it?

Residents fill water bottles at a spring. Image: Getty.

In pre-colonial times the Khoisan called Cape Town, //Hui !Gaeb, the place “where clouds gather” and Camissa “the place of sweet waters”. The future of the city will be shaped by water as it was in the past. But far more attention will need to be paid to the drivers and early warning signs.

The city has been experiencing well below average rainfall over the last two-and-a-half years resulting in limited recharge of its main storage dams. The Western Cape region has been declared a disaster area amid a prolonged drought.

Rainfall over the next six weeks will be crucial. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate with rains falling in the winter months. If there are no major thunderstorms and no significant interventions to bolster supplies from alternate sources such as local aquifers, treated effluent or desalination, then the city could run out of water by the end of year, or in early 2018.

Cape Town is almost entirely dependent on surface water from six main storage dams. Despite population growth and increased demand for water, it has successfully used water demand management over the past 17 years to conserve water by fixing leaks, reducing water pressures, educating users and restricting outdoor water use. But on their own these steps are unlikely to be adequate to avert “day zero”. Alternate water supplies need to be added.

There are two things that Cape Town needs to get right: firstly, it must improve its early warning systems. That is easier said than done. The current drought arrived at a speed and without a confident warning from the scientific community. And, secondly, it must diversify its water supply and become less reliant on surface water supplies.

Early warning systems are not enough

Early warning signs of a pending drought in 2017 were not clear or loud enough to prompt timely actions. As a result, the city was caught relatively unaware. Perhaps the success of the water demand programme created a false sense of security.

Citizens, businesses, officials and politicians responded slowly to early warnings about potential shortages. This is for a number of reasons. Water is taken for granted; there are too many confusing messages about how to manage water; and there is general apathy to adapt to water scarcity because it doesn’t seem to be a priority until it’s in short supply.

Lessons from the 1996 to mid-2010 Australian Millennial Drought show that threat of drought was clearly understood following several severe droughts. Despite the experience, central government was only able to act once the risk became extreme. But then it acted swiftly, investing heavily in new technologies and infrastructure.

This meant substantial increases in the unit cost of water. But Australians understood, and accepted them.

Australians also learnt that there are no quick fixes. They are still working on new interventions and education 10 years after the drought ended.

The City of Cape Town is following a similar trend by investigating new technologies. But these will take time to implement and deliver water in sufficient volume to rescue the city from disaster. In the meantime, saving water is the only game in town in the hope that it will buy the city sufficient time until the next winter rainfall in 2018.

What should be done?

Drivers of water resources are like the cogs in a mechanical system. They turn slowly – some more so than others. Often they fail to attract political will or financial attention because water management is competing with other priorities and demands.

The immediate imperative is to ensure that Cape Town has sufficient water to serve 4m people with a collective demand of at least 500m litres per day. It will involve significant investment in alternative water supplies like stormwater, groundwater, seawater or treated wastewater for non-potable use.

But investment to alleviate the crisis must be carefully managed. Emergency spending can restart further crises which in turn could lead to installing new technologies that can’t be used because they are inappropriate or not affordable.

The long term plans need to focus on “climate proofing” the city to ensure that it becomes a water sensitive city. These plans should include treating the city as a catchment where water is collected naturally. Water should be captured and stored in rain tanks, detention ponds, in recharged groundwater and floodplains.

Plans should also include bringing new life to the city’s waterways and regenerating natural systems. This is about rethinking the value of springs, rivers and streams. These blue and green corridors are water sources as well as valuable in reducing urban temperatures.

The city must ensure it has proper plans in place that anticipate future events, such as prolonged changes in weather patterns, so that it can respond quickly. This must include being able to unlock investments and establishing private and government partnerships.

The ConversationIn addition, this drought is setting the conditions for the “new normal” in which citizens will need to become skilled at adapting to a sustainable threshold of water use.

Kevin Winter, Senior Lecturer in Environmental & Geographical Science, University of Cape Town.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.