This is not a drill: Cape Town, climate and the water crisis

By Laureen Fagan - 16 May 2017 at 9:11 pm
This is not a drill: Cape Town, climate and the water crisis

The water crisis and unrelenting drought in Cape Town, South Africa, have become so dire that city officials on Tuesday recommended the highest level of water restrictions for its nearly 4 million people.

“This is not a drill,” the city said, in a public message clearly marked as a drought crisis warning. It urges residents to immediately use only minimal water for essential drinking, cooking and washing.

Cape Town says it is perilously close to levels so low in its system of water-supply dams and reservoirs that the remaining water is unusable. The city has begun dredging operations to Voëlvlei Dam and plans to implement them at Theewaterskloof Dam, in order to prepare for low-level water extraction.

The long, hot and cruelly dry season has continued into autumn without relief. Dam levels are now at 21.2 percent of their storage levels, down another 0.8 percent from a week ago. But that last 10 percent is residual and engineers and authorities don’t consider it usable – so effectively, Cape Town’s water reserves are now at 11 percent and municipal officials still can’t get consumption levels below targets.

Tightened restrictions that assume a maximum of 100-liter per capita consumption, per day, are expected to take effect on June 1, and they replace the “critically low” Level 3 restrictions that have been in place since February 1.

City officials are encouraging people to flush toilets less frequently, and collect gray water whenever possible to do so. Use wet cloths to freshen up, rather than taking full showers or baths, they ask. Absolutely no swimming pools, landscape irrigation with fresh water, or new school sports fields.

‘We are essentially saying that you are only allowed to use a bit of water for drinking, cooking and washing,” said city councilwoman Xanthea Limberg, who serves on the mayoral committee for informal settlements, water services and sanitation. “This is not a request.”

An unforeseen magnitude of water crisis

Cape Town says about 75 percent of its water usage is residential, so the emphasis is on savings in the home, where people are asked to check and fix any leaks, and not to run water during daily grooming or hygiene tasks like shaving or brushing teeth. The city also urges businesses to “start implementing contingency and alternative water measures in their own operations.”

Critics have said the city’s response has been too slow, and stiff tariffs on those failing to comply with restrictions need to be enforced. Nor will showering with buckets to collect water, or reducing the clean linens available in hotels, protect Capetonians in the future if climate impacts aren’t addressed now.

“This is a moment in which we transform the city of Cape Town into a water independent city and one that is also climate resilient,” said University of Cape Town environmental scientist Kevin Winter in a recent Deutsche Welle interview.

In the meantime, there are no May rains. City of Cape Town data from 10 reporting sites shows just a fraction of the long-term rainfall averages for the month. Estimates from April suggest the city had only about 88 days’ worth of water left, and the clock is ticking.

Municipal officials continue low-pressure flow controls that are designed to reduce both usage and waste, but there’s only so much they can do. Western Cape official Anton Bredell warns that there aren’t enough water tankers to serve the province as an emergency alternative, and South African minister Nomvula Mokonyane admits no one expected this magnitude of a crisis.

The continent’s climate challenge

If the modern city of Cape Town – with its tech innovation centers and international tourist destinations – must understand that its climate challenge is not a drill, so too are others on the continent suffering catastrophe.

There are at least 17 countries facing the cumulative impact of two or more consecutive years of drought, according to a March report for IRIN. They include the highly visible Horn of Africa nations, where unprecedented and life-threatening conditions are worsening in Somalia and Sudan.

Yet another 5.7 million people are at risk in Ethiopia, and parts of Kenya are seeing widespread crop failure. Inadequate rains and climate impacts are contributing to the ongoing political violence and economic stress in Burundi. Southern Angola, Malawi and Swaziland fall among the southern nations impacted by some of the same drought conditions that have created the water crisis in Cape Town.

This scenario is not the climate change of tomorrow, but the reality of today, and some officials see an opportunity to learn and effect change. Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille says that the city is reviewing its 30-year water plan to become a “water-sensitive city” and give greater consideration to climate change. Cape Town hopes to shift its reliance away from traditional surface-water sources and in doing so, become less at the mercy of climate forces while moving to a more integrated approach.

“During this time of drought, we have the opportunity to fundamentally improve resource efficiencies in our local economy,” the mayor said last week while connecting with Cape Town’s business community. “In managing the water crisis, we acknowledge that we cannot work in isolation and engaging with key sectors such as yourselves is crucial.”

It’s a change that can no longer be put off in Cape Town, or elsewhere, until another day – not when there are only so few days left.

Image: City of Cape Town

Laureen Fagan

Laureen Fagan

Laureen is the editor of Africa Times

Laureen is a freelance journalist creating high-quality, informed content on international affairs, politics and technology. She has worked both in and out of newsrooms since 2000. She is a former paramedic with significant experience in community resilience and nonprofit community development initiatives, and maintains "a passion for action" on sustainability and climate change. She also is trained in conflict resolution and diversity, and has special interests in science and medical reporting, and culture and religion issues. Laureen received her MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in the United States, and completed additional graduate study in theology at University of Notre Dame. Follow Laureen on Mastodon at

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