Cape Town is running out of water – so why isn’t the government acting?

Cape Town residents protest in January. Image: Getty.

For the past few months, residents of Cape Town have had one thing on their minds: Day Zero. This ominous title refers to the date when the water supply will be cut off. Taps will run dry, and residents will have to queue, buckets in hand, at depot stations scattered around the city for their daily supply. No major metro has ever run out of water or had to plan for such an operation. 

While previous estimates had Day Zero scheduled for some time in April, it has now been postponed until next year – a result, the City claims, of residents saving enough water to maintain supplies until the upcoming rainy season. However, one would be justified in taking this with a pinch of salt. The city confidently predicted that previous seasons would bring sufficient rain to stave off a crisis, an estimate that proved massively incorrect. In fact, Cape Town has experienced three consecutive record-breaking years of low rainfall. Meanwhile, dams – the primary sources of water to the region – continue to see their levels drop at a rate of around 1 per cent per week.

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees access to water as a right and imposes a positive duty on the state to protect that right. Given this, the astronomical costs of Day Zero actually occurring, the electoral harm such a crisis could inflict and the profound embarrassment of being the first major city in the world to run out of water, it is remarkable just how dithering the political response has been.

The Democratic Alliance, which runs the city of Cape Town and the entire Western Cape province, is the largest opposition party in South Africa. With its impressive performance in the 2016 local government elections and the ruling ANC plagued by more corruption scandals than it can count, the DA had its eyes set on what was previously unthinkable: enough votes in the 2019 national election to govern the country, even if only in coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The water crisis makes this look increasingly unlikely. The DA argues that the drought was difficult to predict; that the national government has been uncooperative; and that the public has not done enough to save water. This last accusation is particularly surprising: attempts at spreading the water-saving message have been tame and ineffective. Almost no billboards have been erected with info on the crisis and no TV ads have been run.

And while the party attracted ire earlier this month for a series of incendiary  text messages about land reform, no such targeted system has been used to educate citizens about the water crisis.  Many of the DA’s broadcasts have been couched in a feel-good, unserious sentimentality, such as a 2016 YouTube video where Western Cape premier Helen Zille suggests “showering with a friend” to save water.  The launch of ‘Splash’, a water-saving mascot, backfired when the character faced online mockery for its unintentionally terrifying appearance.

The decision to scrap Day Zero for the year is baffling, too. There is no sign that it is any less likely to occur, and its looming presence, although dramatic, was clearly the most effective mechanism at encouraging water-saving. Reports already suggest that since Day Zero’s postponement, Cape Town’s water consumption has increased again. The DA seems to want to have its cake and eat it, attempting to warn residents of the impending crisis and urging them to change their lifestyles, while simultaneously avoiding any public campaigns that might make the city look anything less than perfectly functional or hamper tourism.


Climate change means water crises like the one facing Cape Town are likely to become a far more common occurrence. The New Delhi based Centre for Science & Environment think tank lists 10 cities that may face similar ‘Day Zero’ type situations in the near future unless drastic water-saving action is taken. They include including Beijing, Mexico City, Nairobi, Karachi and Istanbul.

If Cape Town is to serve as a cautionary tale to these cities, two lessons seem pertinent. First, act early. Cape Town officials were warned of the potential for a crisis as early as 2009. Despite this, water restrictions only came into effect in January 2016. While three water desalination plants are set to become operational this month, these remain a temporary solution, and work on them began far too late. Cities cannot control the climate, but they can prepare for it.

The second lesson is not to shy away from radical measures. Capetonians only started meaningfully saving water when the crisis began to feel like one. The city’s rolling back of measures like the Day Zero countdown simply breeds complacency among a population that needs to be vigilant. Attempting to downplay concerns to protect tourism and look good electorally runs the risk of exacerbating the problem in future.

Cape Town remains on the brink of an unprecedented disaster. Residents can only hope for an exceptionally wet rainy reason. However, with dam levels as low as they are, even this may prove too little too late.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.