Cape Town’s water crisis is the first of its kind in history, but residents are pulling through to conserve their most precious resource

Christine Beyleveldt // Editor-in-Chief
Illustration by Laura Pummell

For a city currently experiencing its worst drought in 100 years, Cape Town is remarkably green. The golf course at Sea Point maintains lush lawns, and the lower slopes of Table Mountain are dotted with blue gums, oaks and maples. However, a scenic drive along the coast reveals something of a very different nature. Entire hillsides of scorched earth, a fine layer of soot coating the ground and gnarled tree branches blackened by wildfires that blazed through the countryside last year, reveal that this city has been met with a crisis. A poignant sculpture erected in Camps Bay with words from William Sweetlove reads, “Water is temporary. Extinction is forever.” It serves as a stark reminder to Capetonians that every drop counts. 

Day Zero, the day Cape Town turns off its taps, splashed across international headlines in January. “We have reached a point of no return. Despite our urging for months, 60 [per cent] of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day,” Mayor Patricia de Lille tweeted. “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.” Two weeks later on Feb. 1, Level 6B water restrictions went into effect, limiting Capetonians to just 50 litres of water per person per day for a 150 day period. Day Zero would hit on April 21 if residents didn’t take immediate action, and it sparked a panic. 

When I arrived in Cape Town on April 28, a week after Day Zero was scheduled to occur, there was no panic, in fact there was a profound sense of normalcy. The actual date had already been pushed several times and is now scheduled for 2019 thanks to conservation efforts. I was greeted at the airport by a display of bottles of drinking water hanging from the ceiling – a very visual representation of the amount of water Capetonians were restricted to for personal use. 

Cape Town’s drought began four years ago, and with each successive year, the skies remained cloudless and the city’s water supply fell to a critical level. Politicians urged residents to reduce their water consumption. In 2016 they were collectively using one billion litres of water every day. Their goal: to cut that figure down to 450 million litres. After the Day Zero announcement, people scaled back tremendously, although they were consistently just shy of their target and consumed roughly 500 million litres per day. For months, Jade and Mauro Longano couldn’t get bottled water because others were stockpiling it, and the companies where they work sought contingency plans. 

Some blame de Lille for not treating the water shortage with the urgency it required until it was almost too late. “The city’s taking an immense amount of criticism for not being more vocal. The reason they haven’t been more vocal is because we think they don’t know how,” criticized Mauro. 

“The dams couldn’t have been at more than 25 per cent [capacity] at most when things started happening,” said Chris Keet, a winemaker who lives an hour outside of Cape Town in Somerset West.  

The city’s first desalination plant in Strandfontein came online in May and was soon contributing seven million litres of water to the municipal water system every day. By June, a plant at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront was contributing two million litres of water, and by July, a third plant in Monwabisi – an additional seven million litres per day. 

Despite the additional water supply, the crisis is far from over. Zambia native Nick Sloane, a marine salvage expert best known for salvaging the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy in 2013, proposed a wild idea: to tug an iceberg drifting off the coast of Antarctica over 4,000 miles to the drought-stricken city. There, it could be cut and the slurry would be melted into drinking water. Sloane has estimated that even if 30 per cent of the iceberg were to melt en route, it would still be able to supply 135 billion litres of water. 

This is not the first time Cape Town has dealt with a crisis. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first city in the world to run out of water. “We’re used to resource scarcity,” said Mauro, referencing the blackouts that have plagued Cape Town for years. “We’re the most efficient users of water anywhere in the world by half.”  

On my first night, I was shown the bucket I had to place over the shower drain to collect the dirty water and the sponge I would use to mop up any excess from the floor and squeeze back into the bucket. Later, I’d use it to flush the toilet without engaging the flush mechanism.

Eskom, South Africa’s national energy provider, hasn’t built enough power stations to keep up with the demand for electricity, or maintained existing stations properly. From 2009-2010, Eskom embarked on a project to increase the supply of electricity, but Capetonians became more energy efficient in order to cope with prolonged blackouts. “So [we’ve] had additional supply come online without more people needing it,” said Mauro.  

In October 2013, São Paulo, the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere, faced a similar crisis when its main reservoir slipped below four per cent capacity, leaving over 20 million inhabitants with less than a three week supply of water. Jakarta, Bangalore, Istanbul, Cairo, Mexico City and São Paulo are all in danger of running out of water according to BBC World News 

What sets Cape Town apart from São Paulo is that this water crisis isn’t temporary. “If we do switch off, we’re not switching on again for a very long time,” Mauro remarked.  

“We think that’s why the city went through such a big scare to try and get people to reduce water [consumption], because they knew that they would never be able to turn the water off,” said Jade. Infrastructure would simply collapse. The city is already slipping into a deficit because revenue from water tariffs has halved to match consumption.  

De Lille noted that Cape Town’s taps would run dry when the water supply fell below 13.5 per cent, and the city came dangerously close in May, when the reservoirs were at just 20 per cent capacity. 

Residents were urged to limit their consumption to just 50 litres per person per day. To compare, the most recent statistics from Metro Vancouver show that most Vancouverites use over 430 litres of water per day. At peak consumption before the Water District was established in 1926, Greater Vancouver Water District Architect and Chief Commissioner, Ernest Cleveland, estimated that most Vancouverites were wasting nearly a kilolitre of water on a daily basis. 

British Columbia is a temperate rainforest, and the Lower Mainland has one of the largest supplies of fresh water on the planet. As someone used to having unbridled access to clean water, readjusting to 90-second showers was by far the most difficult aspect of the water crisis to overcome, but Capetonians have pulled through it remarkably well. “If it’s 30 litres, if it’s 25, tell us that we need to do it, we can’t get to that point,” said Mauro. A 10-minute shower consumes 70 litres of water, nearly 50 per cent more than the daily allowance.  

On my first night, I was shown the bucket I had to place over the shower drain to collect the dirty water and the sponge I would use to mop up any excess from the floor and squeeze back into the bucket. Later, I’d use it to flush the toilet without engaging the flush mechanism. Most public restrooms have already disconnected their faucets and replaced soap with waterless hand sanitizer. In restaurants and cafés, the wait staff urge customers to drink out of takeaway cups so they don’t have to wash their glassware and to not ask for ice. People have dug up their gardens, laid down artificial turf and replaced vegetation with succulents, which fare better in the dry conditions. For Keet and his wife Leanne, the water crisis doesn’t hit as hard, but they’ve allowed their pool to evaporate and have dug a borehole to increase their own supply. Scores are boring into the ground to tap into the aquifers. At the beginning of 2018, over 22,000 boreholes were registered in Cape Town. But with so many eking out a larger supply, people are waiting months.  

De Lille chastised consumers in January whom she said appeared to believe the city’s augmentation projects would produce enough water to offset the effects of the critical shortage, but Jade believes the time for pointing fingers is over. Mauro suggests everyone needs to learn to live with less regardless of the outcome. “The thing is it’s going to take more than one winter to fill the dams so we’re going to be scarce of water for a number of summers still,” added Jade. 

“From a domestic point of view you learn how to deal with water and use of greywater,” said Keet. “Before we had our borehole connected here you showered in a tub and used a plastic bucket.” 

Jade and I take a walk down the street to the nearby spring where a group of armed police officers supervise the flow of people. Families with their young children and elderly parents are lining up along the block in Newlands, an upmarket suburb that receives higher than average winter rainfall. Some have towed flatbed trolleys, but all of them have come with empty containers. The police are there to ensure no one takes more than 25 litres at a time without returning to the back of the queue.  

Residents collect water at the Newlands Spring in Cape Town on May 19, 2018. (Photo by Christine Beyleveldt)

Jade and Mauro have walked down to this spring every couple of weeks to collect drinking water. The rest, they try to take from their two 1,000 litre rainwater collection tanks installed this year that put less of a burden on the municipal water supply. “Water is owned by the state, it’s not a public resource, so the legality of boreholes has actually been challenged,” said Mauro.  

“It also teaches one a lot, you know from an agricultural point of view,” said Keet. Generally, he explained, people working in the agricultural sector over-irrigate. With low rainfall most farmers readjusted their irrigation schedules and changed their systems, for example, switching from sprinklers to drips. Timing and improved efficiency of water application produced more consistent harvests and, in some cases, better quality fruit. “And you suddenly realize we can do with a lot less.” 

The city has installed smart water meters to restrict every household to 200 litres. After that, the taps are turned off for the day. “The implicit assumption is that a household is four people,” said Mauro. “So we directly benefit. We can actually use 100 litres. We don’t.” 

Days after my visit, the Kildare Road spring, which has flowed for 100 years, was shut down and the water redirected to the Newlands swimming pool along with a water source near the Newlands Brewery. Kildare Road was experiencing a bottleneck with so many people coming to collect water, whereas the pool has a parking lot that can accommodate more people. Even Cape Town’s “wettest” suburb isn’t unaffected. 

If Day Zero does arrive, de Lille’s course of action would have water trucked in from all over the country to 200 collection points where Capetonians would line up to receive a daily allowance of 25 litres. “What do you do with the old and the sick? What do you do with the young? 25 litres of water is 25 kilograms. That’s heavy. I struggle to carry it probably 30 metres away,” criticized Mauro. Cape Town is home to over four million inhabitants, which means each collection point would have to serve 20,000 people every day. The police wouldn’t be able to cope, and even Mauro doubts military intervention could keep violence from breaking out at collection points or prevent hijacks on water transports. 

The New Zealand Herald and the Washington Post report that the water crisis shows the pervasive inequality in South Africa. A recent World Bank Study found that South Africa is still the most unequal country in the world for people of different races and economic standings. While the wealthy dig boreholes the impoverished are stretched thin. But with a resource as precious as water, scarcity affects everyone. Even among those who already have boreholes, people are pulling undrinkable salt water out of the ground, and others are finding that their groundwater supply is already running dry. 

Cape Town has over 35 townships, but Khayelitsha is its largest, and it’s growing every day as more and more people arrive in the city. These “informal settlements” were originally squatter camps. In the last two decades the government has gone through, bringing electricity to the some two million people living in these tin shanties, even replacing some of the structures with proper concrete buildings. But Khayelitsha’s residents have never had piped water or the basic infrastructure to support it. Every day is Day Zero in the townships. Women, children and the elderly collect water from taps. They go to central locations with small buckets to collect water every day, and they’ve been doing this for years.  

In the last 10 years, only one reservoir has been built – the Berg River Dam in Franschhoek – to accommodate the growing population. Between one and five million Zimbabwean migrants have resettled in Cape Town since the turn of the millennium. With the population on the rise, supply simply can’t keep up with demand.  

Cape Town is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Without water, there would be major civil unrest. “The important thing to remember here is that we can not get to Day Zero,” said Mauro. “Security will be the least of our issues. There will be a massive health crisis, you’ll get spread of diseases that love that kind of waterless environment.” Cholera would be rampant. Schools and businesses would be forced to shut down. People working in buildings would be sent home because the absence of water in the sprinkler systems would pose a safety risk. 

Weeks after I left Cape Town, water poured in rivulets down the slopes of Table Mountain. “It’s all about when it rains this winter,” said Jade, and at last the rain fell. By August, the dams had reached 63.5 per cent capacity, but it’s still too early to celebrate. Cape Town has averted a crisis this year, but let this serve as a reminder to everyone that water truly is our most precious resource. 

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