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Cape Town’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to the World

Cape Town residents line up to refill water bottles at Newlands Brewery Spring Water Point on January 30, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa.Photo: Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

Cape Town, South Africa, a city of 4 million people, is just weeks away from becoming the world’s first major city to run entirely out of water — but of course, it won’t be the last.

South Africa’s second-largest city after Johannesburg, Cape Town was not an obvious candidate for that dubious distinction. In 2014, its dams were flush with rainwater and its water-conservation strategy was award-winning. Then came the worst drought South Africa had seen in a century, lasting three whole years. Now, the Theewaterskloof Dam, the city’s main reservoir, is at just 13 percent of capacity.

Climate change is obviously a factor in Cape Town’s water crisis, as South Africa faces a hotter and drier future, but it’s not the only one. Politics and misgovernment have played a role as well.

Even as the city government enacted its aggressive and remarkably successful water-demand-management strategy over the past decade, the national government allocated too much water to agriculture and declined to fund the development of new water sources and water recycling systems, David W. Olivier, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, explained in December. The ruling African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance, which governs the Western Cape province, have taken to playing the blame game as the crisis looms.

Cape Town’s water system depends almost entirely on six dams, of which the Theewaterskloof is the largest. When supply throughout this system falls to 13.5 percent of capacity, the local government will turn off the taps throughout the city, excepting schools, hospitals, and other essential services. After “Day Zero,” water, already rationed at 50 liters per person daily, will only be available at 200 collection stations throughout the city, and the ration cut by half again. Day Zero is currently forecast for sometime in May.

At the moment, Day Zero is still avoidable. Cape Town has already cut its daily water consumption significantly by lowering pipe pressure and instructing residents to conserve water, threatening fines for those who exceed the limit and publicizing household water consumption so people can find out if their neighbors are overusing. Conscientious Capetonians are currently taking measures such as bathing and doing laundry less often, limiting showers to two minutes, and recycling the water they use to wash food, do dishes, or brush their teeth as gray water for flushing their toilets.

In a deeply unequal city, home to mansions, resorts, and shantytowns alike, the impact of the shutoff will be felt very differently from one neighborhood to the next. So far, however, people appear to be banding together to keep Day Zero from happening with admirably communal spirit. If the city can hold out until the start of the rainy season in May — and if the rainy season starts on schedule — it may still escape a total shutoff. Here’s hoping it does, as the consequences otherwise are practically unthinkable.

The government has warned that it will be the most serious crisis a major city has faced since World War II or the September 11 attacks. The expense and logistical challenges of delivering water via distribution centers aren’t even the half of it, though: What’s really got Capetonians worried is the possibility of Day Zero leading to a breakdown in social order. How does one manage a crowd of 20,000 thirsty people lining up at a collection point for water? How will the authorities police the collection of water from natural springs? What happens to people who can’t get there, or have no means of carrying their water rations home? What happens when sanitation fails or diseases break out?

Nobody really knows, because no city of Cape Town’s size has ever had to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Water shortages are a familiar challenge for large cities in India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil: São Paulo, a city of 12 million people, came within 20 days of a complete shutoff in 2015, but was saved in the nick of time by rains. Even that close call led to the looting of emergency water trucks. In the Middle East, home to some of the world’s most water-poor countries, growing populations, overexploitation of resources, and mismanagement by authorities have led to similar crises: Conflict over scarce water resources is already a fact of life in war-torn Yemen.

As for the developed world, Australia and California are no strangers to drought: Melbourne, for example, could run out of water as soon as 2028, assuming the worst effects of climate change on supply and population growth on demand. Fortunately for Melbourne, however, it has a robust water strategy, the resources to implement it, and a government that recognizes the dangers of inaction.

California recently weathered a five-year drought without any major cities running dry, though some small, rural communities did (and Governor Jerry Brown was forced to implement the first mandatory restrictions on urban water use in the state’s history). Between the success of conservation efforts and the vast, diversified network of water resources on which California cities draw, experts say it would take a much longer drought to bring about water-based anarchy in Los Angeles.

Then again, the way things are going, nobody can guarantee that such a drought won’t happen, and that’s the first lesson the world should heed from Cape Town: It’s not a question of whether major cities will start to run dry, but rather when and where.

The other lesson is that this problem cannot be solved at the local level alone. After all, Cape Town was already doing nearly everything right when disaster struck, but was prevented from taking the measures needed to prevent this crisis by a lack of political will at the national level.

Competing local, state, and federal policies have also contributed to water-management problems in California, a problem that is only bound to get worse as Sacramento attempts to deal with climate change while Washington insists on plugging its ears and undermining any such efforts. As South Africa’s missteps show, if governments don’t take these threats seriously until catastrophe is on the horizon, it will be too late to do anything about it.

NY Mag

19 Comments on "Cape Town’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to the World"

  1. Davy on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 7:46 am 

    We really have not had such a situation where a city so large is facing imminent breakdown. Could this be telling us our cities are too big for a new world of 1 degree warmth? How does such a large city deal with a water shutdown? Think of all that sewage. Should they be considering oil tankers converted to carrying water? How do you take care of 4MIL people without steady reliable water? How do you disperse so many people out of this place without collapsing other areas? Could this destroy South Africa or is this just another nothingburger? This situation like Venezuela are test cases in human collapse. These are places we need to be looking to for hints at what may be coming to all of us eventually.

  2. Davy on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 8:05 am 

    speaking of dry:

  3. Shortend on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 8:33 am 

    Vote with your feet and HURRY….run out of water? RUN and don’t look back!

  4. fmr-paultard on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 9:08 am 

    i just want to reaffirm my position on supertards and it goes all the way to supreme tard without any relation and assumption that they even measure up.

    But Luke 22:36 melts my heart.

    It doesn’t matter if Russia steals our secrets and pursue a shogun policy in hope to achieve parity with us. We’re not about military alone. We’re about indoors plumbing, and safe electricty, etc.

    It doesn’t matter if Canada is a Utopia

    It doesn’t matter that Phils is granting sharia self rule. Or it’s a Catholic nation that failed to govern according to modern principle of democracy. it maybe the geography and size that causes all this.

    My supertards are fine.

    It doesn’t matter that eurotard is atheistic and extreme. There’s something more extreme and it’s Islam.

  5. onlooker on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 9:49 am 

    The time of warning has passed, consequences are now setting in

  6. Sissyfuss on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 10:03 am 

    Ones piece of the pie grows smaller each day for as the pie grows smaller, the mouths it needs to feed grow in number rapidly. Whether the pie is made of water, food or fossil fuels the equation stays the same. Stressing conservation and recycling, while commendable, attends to the symptoms and not the causes. Talking of violence erupting in the lines of people queing up for their daily ration reminds me of the scene in Soylent Green where they unleash the front end loaders on the crowd after they run out of people wafers.
    A location severely drought stricken that they didn’t mention was Iran where the Syrian catastrophe is being repeated. A historic drought destroys the crops and animals of millions of farmers who then flee to the cities looking for relief where there is none leading to chaos and civil was. The rhyme of history it would seem.

  7. Sissyfuss on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 10:04 am 

    Civil wars. Which by the way is a monumental oxymoron.

  8. tahoe1780 on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 10:06 am 

    Here in Southern Oregon, our ski area just closed after being open for just eight days. Very little snow pack for summer water.

  9. Bob Jones on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 10:28 am 

    Whites ruin every part of the Earth they occupy.

    I am surprised the Africans don’t destroy these white invaders. The whites have never done any good in Africa at any point in history to the people who live there.

  10. Kenz300 on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 11:03 am 

    Too many people demand too many resources……yet the worlds population grows by 80 million every year…..
    How many charities are dealing with the same problems they were dealing with 10 or 20 years ago with no end in sight. Every problem is made worse by the worlds growing population. If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

  11. deadly on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 11:05 am 

    Gotta have water. The Chinese built that giant dam on the Yangtze and now Africa is short. The Chinese stole it!


  12. Hello on Wed, 7th Feb 2018 2:09 pm 

    >>> I am surprised the Africans don’t destroy these white invaders

    I’m surprised the whites didn’t get rid of the negros upon colonization. I mean you can stick a few of them into a zoo, but letting them loose and free to multiple? and then having to feed and cloth them? This certainly doesn’t shine a bright light on europeans intelligence, that’s for sure.

    But then again, wasn’t south africa colonized by the dutch or something? Maybe that’s the reason? (nudge to Clog 🙂

  13. DerHundistlos on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 4:16 am 

    @ Bob Jones

    The White’s are leaving. Case in point Rhodesia. Mugabe has done a magnificent job managing the affairs of state.

    Be careful what you wish. It might come true.

  14. Dredd on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 4:58 am 

    Cape Town’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to the World” should read “The World’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to Cape Town” (Hot, Warm, & Cold Thermal Facts: Tidewater-Glaciers).

  15. peakyeast on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 7:02 am 

    Yeah – its the white peoples fault that the black has bred so many babies. All that white medicine and doctors. You gotta hate that.

    It was all a devious trap set by the white people – making so many black people survive diseases and malnutrition. It only makes sense to kill the white for that…

    Of course, the whities knew that the black would outstrip the carrying capacity of the country – because that is not happening anywhere else, is it?

  16. DerHundistlos on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 1:50 pm 

    “The Zulu is tired. It shines in the eyes of all the people. The black elephant tramples to the wind while the bones of our kings are crumbling. Nothing but death conquers the White man. Everything that was mine in Zululand has been destroyed by the White devils.”
    ~~Unknown Zulu Soldier~~

  17. Cloggie on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 3:21 pm 

    “But then again, wasn’t south africa colonized by the dutch or something? Maybe that’s the reason? (nudge to Clog )”

    When the Dutch created an outpost at the southern tip of Africa for victualing ships en route to the East Indies, the Cape province was virtually empty. As always Africans follow Europeans, not the other way around.

    When gold was discovered, the English decided it was time to take over from the Dutch. And those who resisted were put in concentration camps, the first in history:

    Auschwitz was better (the climate there sucked though).

    South-Africa could very well explode within 5 years…

    …initiating the end of the ideal of multiculturalism once and for all.

  18. Cloggie on Thu, 8th Feb 2018 3:29 pm

    Whites ruin every part of the Earth they occupy.

    I am surprised the Africans don’t destroy these white invaders. The whites have never done any good in Africa at any point in history to the people who live there.

    You are so right Bob Jones.
    Total separation is next. That’ll teach the whites! They will get what they deserve!

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