Cape Town: The Last Drop

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Written by Virginia Favaro 

While steps have been taken to mitigate the water crisis, more work must be done. Even more importantly, the city needs to find sustainable solutions, as this issue will persist.

Cape Town, South Africa is likely to be the first major city to completely run out of water. On ‘Day Zero,’ the city will close off taps and there will no longer be any running water. Instead, every citizen will be able to receive 25 liters of water per day at specific pick-up points throughout the city. ‘Day Zero’ has been pushed off to July from its original April estimate, but permanent solutions for this crisis still look weak.

Three major factors led Cape Town to the brink of this water crisis. First, Cape Town heavily relied on rainfall for much of its water supply for years. However, droughts during the past three years made it impossible for the city to collect rainfall. Some attribute this change in weather patterns to the effects of climate change, pointing to an even more worrying conclusion– this drought isn’t a temporary problem, but rather a long-term one.

On top of the effects of climate change, Cape Town’s population growth put additional pressure on the water supply. According to the City of Cape Town’s data, the city’s population has grown 79% since 1995, while dam storage over the same time period only increase by 15%.

Lastly, the government water mismanagement also contributed to the issue. For years, the local government extracted water from the city’s nearby reservoirs without worrying about possible future water shortages. They believed that the droughts were simply temporary. Christine Colvin, head of the freshwater programs with WWF-South Africa further points out that while “water security has always been ‘important’ in Cape Town,” it had “not been seen as ‘urgent’.”

Since the news originally hit, Cape Town has made progress thanks to water conservation efforts. In January 2018, the city announced that households consuming more than 350 liters of water a day would be subjected to fines starting on February 1st. In fact, according to Greencape, a local non-profit organization, the city’s water consumption decreased by 57%. However, lower individual consumption does little to solve the underlying water management issue, meaning that long-term solutions need to be implemented.

The government of Cape Town is planning to undertake a number of actions in order to address the issue. It plans to construct four new desalination plants. However, these plants are costly to build and operate. Another option is recycling wastewater, but building such facilities is both expensive and time-consuming. The government has thus turned to a cheaper and faster alternative: tapping into the city’s aquifers. However, drilling holes and extracting water from the ground constitute more of a quick-fix solution rather than a sustainable one. In addition, due to the current emergency state, the government is not conducting thorough environmental impact studies, meaning no one knows the extent to which this will affect the local ecosystem.

While steps have been taken to mitigate the water crisis, more work must be done. Even more importantly, the city needs to find sustainable solutions, as this issue will persist. While the city’s future is still uncertain, Cape Town’s water crisis should serve as a warning to other major cities around the world.

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