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Page added on January 28, 2018

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Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?


Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as “almost too perfect.” That’s in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city’s water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They’re calling it “Day Zero.” Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.

Cape Town’s current troubles were not necessarily foreseeable in the usual sense. Yearly long-range weather forecasts raised no alarms when they were released since they did not predict an extreme drought for that year.

The causes of the city’s water problems are, in fact, multiple. First, Cape Town’s population has risen 80 percent since 1994 (the end of white rule) to 3.75 million people putting extraordinary demands on its water system. Second, average rainfall has been gradually decreasing for decades and has reached its lowest since 1933. Comparable records before that are not available. One calculation cited in the above linked article is that the current drought is the worst in more than 300 years. Another calculation suggests the multi-year drought is a once-in-a-millennium event.Third, climate change is almost certainly increasing the likelihood of such a drought though there is no way to prove the link to this particular drought.

There may, however, be water for the city to harvest. Underground tunnels that channel runoff and stormwater from the nearby mountains are one source. But that’s not an immediate solution (because of the new infrastructure that would have to be built), nor one currently being considered by the city. Small-scale containerized desalination plants are expected to be installed to take advantage of Cape Town’s seaside location. But they won’t solve the problem either. They aren’t big enough. When completed the three plants will produce a total of 9 million liters per day. The city currently consumes 600 million liters per day though its conservation plan calls for a reduction to 500 million liters.

While Cape Town’s water problems might have been broadly predictable—along the lines of “there will be a water shortage at some point”—the current problems suggest that the effects of climate change can and will continue to surprise us with their suddenness and severity. While the city is not going to “run out” of water completely as some reports assert, on its current trajectory it will be the first major city in the world to shut off taps to most of its users because of a water supply crisis.

For now, there won’t be a “last glass of water” from Cape Town’s taps as I’ve implied in my title. But if there ever is, it will likely be consumed by one of the millions of tourists who visit Cape Town each year.  As The Christian Science Monitor reports: “Some central and downtown areas could be exempt from the [water] cut-off for the sake of tourism and business.”

So tied are the city’s fortunes to visitors that the locals may be forced to watch as those visitors sip from their water glasses in Cape Town’s restaurants and cafés—while the locals stand in line for their daily water ration. Can Cape Town remain a tourist haven long under the burden of such a contrast?

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14 Comments on "Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?"

  1. Sissyfuss on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 9:26 am 

    Its population has risen 8O% since 1994. Tourism is a lifeblood. Growth must not be tampered with. Man the technology, full speed ahead!

  2. Repent on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 10:21 am 

    A number of years ago the pipes for my house froze during a very cold winter and we had no water. Less of an issue is there is no water to drink or bathe in, as you can buy bottled water or shower at the public pool.

    The big issue was that we could not flush the toilet. We resorted to melting snow in our living room so we could at least flush twice a day. Sadly, the residents of Cape town will not have this option. It will be a stinking health disaster mess when the water runs out.

  3. Duncan Idaho on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 10:26 am 

    We have been going not anyplace fast lately:

  4. bobinget on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 12:50 pm 

    “Cape Town” IOW’s, Waterfront City.

    Are they building solar powered desalination? Or praying for rain?

  5. rockman on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 12:54 pm 

    Sissy – Worse then that. From the early 1900’s the population has increased from about 6 million to 45 million in the early 2000’s.

    And this is in a semi-arid region. And has been so for hundreds of years…if not tens of thousands. There is nothing abnormal about the current rainfall situation. There was an even dryer period in the early 1900’s when obvious AGW could not have been the cause.

    No different then the situation in southern CA. Except, of course, that CA could usurp the water from the Colorado River. And by doing so severely damaged the ecology of Sea of Cortez. Fortunately for the thirsty folks in CA this body of water was one of the rare places on earth that didn’t need protection; in the opinion of the good green folks in CA. LOL. But a few years ago an experimental effort began that might undo some of the damage.

  6. DMyers on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 4:51 pm 

    Three million people need to throw their things together quickly and go to where the water is.

    That’s the answer in less than twenty words.

    I defer to rockman on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 12:54 pm for an intelligent statement on the subject.

  7. Duncan Idaho on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 5:36 pm 

    “And by doing so severely damaged the ecology of Sea of Cortez. ”

    Sorry, that is in the distant past.
    The Colorado barely exits into the gulf.

  8. diemos on Sun, 28th Jan 2018 6:17 pm 

    “Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?”

    Rich people.

  9. deadly on Mon, 29th Jan 2018 1:18 am 

    Just buy some solar distillers and you can make your own fresh water from ocean water.

    Or, you can make your own solar distiller.

    You can buy a solar distiller at places like Amazon if you have 250 dollars.

    This is a good design:

    You can have fresh water from any water source, looks like the ocean will do.

  10. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 29th Jan 2018 2:40 am 

    They got plenty of gasoline,
    but they aint got no water.

    Let’s send them bottled water.

  11. I AM THE MOB on Mon, 29th Jan 2018 3:05 am 

    People are almost completely ignoring a looming crisis for oil

  12. curlyq3 on Mon, 29th Jan 2018 5:38 pm 

    Somebody is going to sell a lot of composting toilets over there … they never should have been wasting the water in the first place for toileting requirements.


  13. peakyeast on Mon, 29th Jan 2018 7:17 pm 

    Soon they will realize that the real defining quality of humans is to convert everything to toxic stinking shit – while moving a little rubble around.

  14. Kenz300 on Tue, 30th Jan 2018 1:55 pm 

    Too many people create too much pollution and demand too many resources.

    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages, unemployment and poverty all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem   OVER POPULATION.
    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem 

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