Cape Town offers a grim preview for the rest of the world

The city that ran out of water.
Water sits in the Molteno reservoir as Table mountain stands beyond in Cape Town. Picture: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

April 22, Earth Day, might have a bit of extra significance this year. It might be the day that, for the first time, a great world city runs out of water.

On that day, according to the local government of Cape Town, water in the reservoirs that feed this most beautiful of coastal cities will drop below critical levels, and stand at 13.5% of capacity. Taps will run dry in homes and businesses, and residents may have to start lining up “between metal fences, waiting to fill up containers from standpipes.” In this “Mad Max”-style dystopia, they will then get a maximum of 25 litres per person, as the city government desperately tries to reduce water consumption to half of what it was just two years ago.

The first things you see when you land at Cape Town’s gleaming airport are signs imploring visitors to save water. You walk out through a disturbing bit of public art: 87 one-litre bottles hanging from the ceiling, a reminder that nobody should use more than that amount per day. Just hours after I left South Africa, that installation might have become even more disturbing: 37 of those bottles should’ve been taken down, as Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that the new requirement, starting Feb. 1, was just 50 litres a day. Punitive new tariffs are also coming into force that will increase water bills for high-end consumers more than seven times over.

It’s far from certain how the more stringent restrictions will work. Still, it’s inspiring to see how hard much of the city has been working to save water. Hotel bathtubs have had their plungers removed. Many wealthy residents drive around in expensive but dusty cars, which haven’t been washed for months. On some level, the crisis mentality that has taken hold in Cape Town is the sort we should all be exhibiting when facing the inevitable disruptions of climate change.

But Cape Town’s battle to keep its water taps running should also serve as a warning. This is, after all, one of the most naturally blessed parts of the world; how did it get to this point?

Climate change has a great deal to do with it, of course. The lush Western Cape province has had to do without rain for three years now; the six big dams that feed its water pipes were at 28% capacity on Jan. 19. Meanwhile, investment has lagged the crisis. Only a fraction of this stored water is usable, because many South African dams haven’t been de-sludged for years. The distribution system is equally buggy: A 2012 study of 132 municipalities suggested that 37% of water use brought in no revenue — meaning less cash for reinvestment — and a quarter was lost to leaks. Cape Town’s population has also grown by more than 55% in the past two decades, even as its dam capacity has increased only marginally.

Another lesson is that unpreparedness for climate change is often the result of a dysfunctional politics that ignores clear warnings. The Western Cape and the Cape Town municipality are run by the Democratic Alliance, while the national government is run by the African National Congress. This political divide has resulted in an entirely underwhelming response to a predictable problem.

If we’re going to allocate blame, to my mind the largest share accrues to the national government. In the late 2000s, Cape Town’s municipal government was warned that it would need new water sources; it worked instead on a sensible demand strategy that focused on infrastructure repair, water pressure management and so on. The city met its water saving target three years in advance. The national government, by contrast, chose to allocate an excessive amount of water to agriculture in the Western Cape. It also failed to release emergency drought relief funding — after all, who wants to fund the rescue efforts being carried out by your political rivals? In this, as in so many ways, the ANC has been a disappointment to those of us across the developing and postcolonial world who still nurture a soft spot for Nelson Mandela’s party.

The lessons are clear. It’s easy to play politics about the crises that will envelop our cities as the disruptions caused by climate change gather momentum. You can ignore warnings, underinvest and pretend that the rain will fall. Or you can pull together before the taps run dry.

Read Thoughts on Cape Town’s Day Zero…

© 2018 Bloomberg



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Complete BS. Deliberate disinformation. There is no evidence whatsoever that climate change has resulted in reduced rainfall to the Cape Town area. Cape town is subject to periodical droughts and has been thus ever since its inception.

Bloomberg are disgusting in the way they lie.

Bottom line,global warming, no global warming DAY ZERO is reality and not April more like mid March

Disagree mate. Global warming is very real.

@Richardthe Great, just to confirm, do you not believe in global warming and that this is just due to ‘sunspots’ and it being a natural cycle?

The DA incompetents densified Cape Town with total disregard to water resource limtations. There was no margin left in the system, to allow for a 1-3 year lower rainful period.

Cape Town was living on the edge, and now will fill off that cliff.

It is likely that the ANC will sweep to power in CT/WC in 2019, as there are many disillusioned ex-DA voters. After the Zille Twit debacle last year, many have shunned the DA and with the rise of Cyril (making the ANC more “palatable”), the days of DA rule in the WC/CT are numbered….the death knell will be those long, long queues for to collect the measly 25 litres of water each and every day for an indefinite period…

If all voters are as blind to facts as you are; and I guess, looking at SA, they may well be, you could be right. But let’s not let facts like CoCT uses the same overall volume of water now as it did 10 years ago, despite a 30% population increase. That is a saving unless you use SAA or Eskom arithmetic. Water supply is a national (ANC) government responsibility they (the ANC) seem to have forgotten or, more likely they haven;t done much for CoCT or the WC, probably due to incompetence, theft, hatred of the DA, or all of the above.

Blind is better than dumb…..

Utter twaddle you are regurgitating, it is the favourite narrative of DA supporters to keep on blaming Nat. Gov, who actually were not responsible for densification of Cape Town.

Ablsolutey brilliant logic about water demand being kept constant for a 33% population increase! So following this dumb DA-style logic, it is equally vaild to say that as the poulation tends to infinity, keeping the water supply constant will not be a bad thing?


Exactly rfjock, but who is responsible for bulk water supply??? National Government. In all their meetings and strategies they should have seen population increases, rainfall drops, warmer weather.

rjjock, did the national government (ANC) extend any help to CT? In my opinion if the president that you voted for didn’t steal so much of the tax payers money, they could have the funds to help CT with additional and highly expensive water producing
procedures. You also don’t take into consideration that CT was changed so much by the DA, that it became one of the best locations and sights for tourists in SA, and if you didn’t know more tourists means a boost in the economy.

You act only out of hatred for the DA. I don’t see the ANC trying to make pretoria and JHB a better place, no instead they break it down further.

So decide if you want a party that can improve the country stats, economy and much more, also a party that keeps their promises and focuses on the problems at hand as well as future problems.

Or do you want a party that is full of corruptions, steals from their own country, believe that they are the only ones alive, sit back in tough situations, didn’t change a thing since being the national government party and believe that they will always win because of the name, brought down the country, appointing ministers in their alliance that can hide information, appointing ministers that has no form of experience or knowledge about what they are doing. Lets vote for a party where the president has no political degree and any knowledge of what they are doing, also didn’t even finish school. Lets choose a party that we can make rich at the cost of the country.

You decide, one error that’s hard to solve, caused by nature. Or numerous errors caused by the party itself, without solving it.

Oh dear rfjock – what a rant – but without a fact or reference in sight. I refer to Zille’s comment on SAFM that has not been challenged. What is your reference to say it is “twaddle”. Your note about pointing to infinity is not that bright either.

The DA ain’t perfect but, in my view; best of a bad lot.

@ rfjock. So what you’re saying, the ANC would handle the same water-situation better than the DA??

I invite you to visit my town in NW, to see for yourself how our ANC-leadership ran the municipality into the ground. The list is long…


Where did I say that the ANC is better than the DA? (with the present incompetence and corruption shown by the DA, this is an open question, but I digress…)

I am merely stating the present situation as it is, and what a possible/probable outcome is. You learn a lot from reading the Watershedding Facebook page to see the anger out there about DA incompetence.

The DA are like a parasite that latched onto the WC and is killing its host. There are many options other than voting for the DA or ANC.

Excuses of climate change, drought, increase in population is just an ever changing environment. The managers should manage accordingly, that is if they were competent. Israel has enough water in the dessert. Why?? What’s the big difference? Israel are also subjected to global warming. Cape Town is another African success story, in a SH country with SH managers/leaders.

Actually Israel steals water from the other countries around it

The Incas, Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed their children to the sun god when a similar drought struck their cities. When this was less successful than anticipated, they abandoned the cities. Although a large part of our society still believe in muti, traditional medicine, traditional healers and that witches do exists among them, the majority of the citizens of Cape Town are fairly well educated and relatively sophisticated. This does not stop them from sacrificing their most senior political figure in an effort to appease the rain god.

When this also fails, maybe they will revert to science as a method to solve their problems.

Maybe we could try sacrificing the zupta clan?

CT surrounded by ocean and intense sunlight should have solar/wind powered desalinisation plants all the way up the west coast feeding in to an undersea pipeline terminating at the harbour and distributed from there. A bit of human engineering can solve anything but the DA have lost face and competence with their infighting. If it was the ANC to begin with there would be no need for the water as no one would want to live in CT anyway and it would have a quarter of the current population.

It seems they don’t want any long term solutions. They have done basically nothing to reduce our dependence on our dams. Just constantly pointing fingers in every direction shifting blame at everything but themselves, traits of poor leaders.

This pretty much sums it up:
“Back in May in a detailed 9 000-word “white paper”, GrahamTek told the City it could deliver 100 million litres of desalinated water daily within four to six months, while simultaneously developing bulk infrastructure for larger, more permanent plants which, in 18 months, could provide up to 450 million litres a day, nearly two-thirds of Cape Town’s current requirements.

Steyn said the “final tender of just a few days ago is the first really potentially sensible one, offering tenderers the opportunity to choose their own site, and produce between 5 and 15 million litres a day”. “This last tender should have been the first.”

The earlier tenders were for a “Mickey Mouse” capacity of 2million litres a day, with a two-year pay-back period, which was “almost impossible, and very expensive”. “You don’t get bank finance for that period.””

“The Monwabisi and Strandfontein desalination plants will yield 7 million litres of water per day each.
The V&A Waterfront’s temporary desalination plant will generate 2 million litres of water daily from March.”

Who wants to live in the first major Wsetern city to run out of water?

Even the Romans had a decent water storage & reticulation system 2000 years ago.

If this is the Crown Jewels of DA leadership, they really are going to get a shellacking in 2019…

Your anti-DA bias is very obvious and adds nothing constructive to the debate. This situation is unprecedented and I highly doubt even the most competent politicians in the world can predict the future.

The city has known about this impending water shortage since 2002 already. So definitely not unprecedented, what is unprecedented is our leaders just pointing fingers in all directions and having done nothing to lower our dependence on our dams in the long term.

“Former Executive Deputy Cape Town Mayor, Grant Haskin (ACDP), corroborates the fact that the City of Cape Town knew long before the fact that it was going to run out of water, and he cites reports long before 2009, two reports coming from 2002 , stating that Cape Town would face dangerous water scarcity.

“Earlier this year the city and senior politicians said this drought caught them by surprise. That is utter nonsense,” stated Haskins in a speech to the council.

Heart FM radio journalist Graeme Raubenheimer investigated Haskin’s claims, and asked the question in a fact-checking exercise: “Did the City of Cape Town in 2002 (15 years ago) have intelligence and/or evidence to suggest the municipality needed to save water, in the case of a possible future water crisis?” Raubenheimer concludes: “The time aspect of Haskin’s ’15 years or more’ claim has been fact-checked, and it is correct.” Raubenheimer goes a bit further: “The City of Cape Town was handed intelligence in 2001 suggesting it needed to save water in case of a possible water crisis. The city had at least 16 years to prepare.”

(There are links to source materials in the article for the above)

Global warming is not an excuse. We know of global warming now for the last 15 years. other far more drier areas such as Israel and Australia have managed the “global warming” with desalination plants. Incompetence is the real problem.

…and not only incompetence: a lot of local engineering skills left SA (thanks to current national regime’s racist BEE policies). So the skills will have to be imported, at huge cost. Local money will be lost to (non BEE compliant) foreigners 😉

I have a wild (politcal) prediction to make. (based on the notion that this water-crisis is convenient for the ANC-led Govt, who ignores/delays solutions…knowing that CT/WC community will vent their anger at the ruling WC party..who happens to be the the next 2019 polls).

It has also been said (by some scenario planners….JW Johnson could be one of them I recall) that one possibility of the ongoing defragmentation of SA (‘verbrokkeling’) a long-term scenario exists where the W/Cape could break away from the rest of SA, becoming a new autonomous country (will probably cause a civil war). SA’s history as a country, with its foundation consisting of an unnatural marriage of unions of provinces/regions/peoples/cultures to form the new Union of South Africa (early 1900’s?). Much like the EU with all it’s cultural differences, but share one currency/trading block.

…and Catalonia wanting to break free from Spain.

Now, COULD this water crisis be THE EVENT triggering the WC-province to break away? Views?
(…I mean, what’s the point of WC taxpayers paying SARS dues, which ends up at National Govt, whose Water Dept is turning a blind eye to WC water issue? That tax money may be put to better use within WC itself?)

..and I would not mind going through the pain of Passport Control outside Beuafort-West (or between Plett and PE) 😉

“In this, as in so many ways, the ANC has been a disappointment to those of us across the developing and postcolonial world who still nurture a soft spot for Nelson Mandela’s party. …”

Indeed. Time for you all to grow up.

End of comments.





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