The Cape Town Water Crisis

In today’s article we find out just how one of Africa’s wealthiest cities finds itself threatening to turn off the faucets of its 4 million residents.


The New York Times once called Cape Town the best place in the world to visit. While it hasn’t lost any of the charm that saw it held in such lofty regard, it has struggled with other, more pressing matters.

It was first established as a simple vegetable garden in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company, and later used as a military stronghold by the British forces until the Union of South Africa was born in 1910. More recently it was the parliamentary stronghold of the apartheid regime. The city has always attracted controversy, and here in 2018, the city home to 4 million people is making headlines again.

How did this happen?

Cape Town is situated in a pretty unique space of land. It has an arid climate that is aided by a special relationship with its most famous landmark. Table Mountain is perched next to the city and plays a fundamental role in the local weather system. The warm breeze that comes off the ocean is trapped by the mountain, which in turn creates local rainfall. This rain fills rivers, lakes, and aquifers.

table-mountain-cape town

Cape Town’s Mediterranean climate has helped the population grow massively. It’s now one of the wealthiest areas of Africa and no stranger to swimming pools, beautiful gardens, and expensive wineries. However, it’s not all caviar and champagne. Unemployment in Cape Town hovers around 25%.

There are more people and more resources in Cape Town requiring water now, than ever before. The government has been aware of this for a long time, but they underestimated how quickly things could change. They have been proactively trying to reduce water usage over the last 20 years. They’ve promoted water efficiency, reduced leaks, and per capita consumption has fallen. In 2004, an upgrade to the pipes to fix leaks was so successful that it reduced the water demand significantly. Crucially, this partial success made officials relax their efforts to find alternative water supplies.

They may have been proactive, but they made one big mistake.

They assumed that the weather wouldn’t change, or at least that it wouldn’t change so quickly. The whole Cape Town water supply relies on the local weather system. If the rains don’t come, the reservoirs don’t fill.

How has the weather changed?

Climate change has contributed to drier weather. There’s less winter rain as a result of the reduced stream flows coming from the ocean. The six major reservoirs that serve the municipal water in the city can last for 3 years of below average rainfall. However, the area is approaching its fourth year of drought.

Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable and extreme, and countries can no longer relax in the assumption that the rains will arrive to fill their reservoirs.

What now for Cape Town?

At the time of writing (3/28/2018), the reservoirs are currently at 22.1% capacity. This is down 1% from 14 days ago and shows that the situation is still a precarious one. It has been stated that when the level drops below 13.5%, the city will have reached ‘Day Zero’. This is when the water supply will be shut-off and the population will need to gather water from specially made collection points.


‘Day Zero’ was penciled in as early as April 12, but it has recently been canceled for 2018. This has led to criticism from government opposition who say that water usage has jumped up considerably since ‘Day Zero’ was moved back. Politician Grant Haskin, says that water consumption has increased from 510 million liters per day to 565 million liters per day since the announcement to push back ‘Day Zero’ was made.

As of February, per capita water consumption has been limited to 50 liters per day. This is a huge reduction from the 87 liters per day limit imposed at the back end of last year.

Worryingly, Cape Town is still experiencing a drought and this is a problem that looks like it will persist unless alternative water sources are found.

Are other cities at risk?

The BBC recently wrote an article listing 11 other cities that are at major risk from water shortage.

The 11 cities they found to be at risk are:

  1. Sao Paulo
  2. Bangalore
  3. Beijing
  4. Cairo
  5. Jakarta
  6. Moscow
  7. Istanbul
  8. Mexico City
  9. London
  10. Tokyo 
  11. Miami

A shrinking water supply is a worrying trend and it’s not a simple fix, as there are a multitude of reasons causing it. Most of these cities are struggling with increased water demands caused by a growing population, but water pollution, climate change, drought, and rising sea waters are factors too.

The big surprise on the list is London, and despite seeing more rainfall than most of the other cities, it is predicted to really struggle in the near future. It seems the abundance of rain has led to officials becoming complacent to the threat of a lack of water. The BBC state that London has a water waste rate of 25% which is wasteful in the extreme. The Greater London Authority predict serious supply problems by the year 2040. Of all the cities on the list it seems that London is the one that is most preventable.

Bangalore is surprisingly the only Indian city to make the list. It may not be as widely reported, but it is common for Indian cities to rely on water tankers and for taps to run dry in summer every year. While Cape Town has access to water 24/7, a recent study showed that the average daily water supply is just 3.3 hours each day. Actually, just two Indian cities receive water for more than 12 hours per day. Another study showed that Indian cities receive just 69 liters of water a day per capita. These statistics are extremely worrying and show that the BBC report is just the tip of an enormous, and rapidly expanding iceberg.

If you enjoyed this article then you might like our other pieces on water pollution and the environment. Find them under the ‘Environment’ tab at the top of the page.

If you’re worried about water pollution in your home, then don’t miss our big guide to home water filtration systems.


National Geographic

Smithsonian Magazine

The Atlantic

The New Yorker

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