Water Crisis in Cape Town, South Africa

For months, the citizens of Cape Town were threatened by Day Zero, the government’s proclaimed day that water would be shut off and citizens would be forced to collect their daily rations of water under the supervision of armed guards. Day Zero had been pushed back several times thanks to a rainy winter season and citizens abiding by the water usage restrictions. Currently, the government no longer has a set date for Day Zero, only the looming threat that it may still occur in 2019.

A combination of factors led to the world’s most severe urban water crisis in 2018. Exacerbated by climate change, a record drought, now classified as a natural disaster, dramatically reduced Cape Town’s resources. Then, due to politicking in a contested region, errors in governmental preventional planning occurred, and the city failed to make adequate infrastructure advancements to keep up with the growing population.

Capetonians have been restricted to 50 L, 13 gallons, of water a day. Divided between water for personal hygiene, drinking water, water for dishes or laundry, and meals, it is difficult for Capetonians to adapt and abide to such an extremely limited supply. The government has also suggested acquiring an emergency supply of drinking water, but bottled water is nearly nonexistent and when it does arrive in stores it sells out  immediately.

The citizens have adapted to the withering golf courses, the public restrooms that now urge visitors to flush only when absolutely necessary, and the high-end restaurants using disposable table settings, but the more detrimental impacts of the water crisis has prompted distress. The water crisis has caused some 300,000 jobs to be lost in the agriculture business and some tens of thousands more in the service, hospitality and food sectors. The economy worsens further as the population’s productivity decreases when they are distracted by the water crisis, such as taking time off work to wait in line for water.

Adding to the potential economic downturn, Cape Town has faced a decrease in tourism. Cape Town struggles to convince tourists that their city welcomes and is adequately able to supply water to tourists. They are trying to dispute the fear that tourists would be siphoning water from locals, citing the fact that tourists make up 1 % of the population and are vital to maintain the tourism industry.

Additionally, the water restrictions in Cape Town make it difficult for people to maintain proper personal hygiene. The 13 gallon a day limit only allows for roughly a half gallon a day for washing hands and brushing teeth, which is approximately one-eighth of the amount of water people consume each time they wash their hands (using sanitizing gels does not adequately substitute washing). Water-borne illnesses will become more prevalent as locals take to storing water in contaminated containers.

The government fears the anarchy that may ensue if Day Zero was implemented, but struggles to control water usage without it. After the removal of a date for “day zero,” there was an increase in water usage, so the government is considering implementing a tariff increase of 27% on water in order to keep water usage down. Despite this threat, there has been a growing lack of compliance to water restrictions.

The Water Project NGO, based in Concord NH, has begun to help the South African government provide services to its people and give supplies to those in need, such as sanitation supplies and clean water education. The state department should subcontract this NGO to specifically target the immediate needs of the Capetonians.

The State Department should also allocate money to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Climate Action Partnership to help alleviate the overarching problem of climate change. The WWF works toward greater wilderness preservation and reducing human impact on the environment. WWF plans to improve sustainable agriculture, reconnect natural areas and reduce the environmental impact of food production. These plans include helping farmers improve land use planning, as well as use better production and responsible farming practices. The Climate Action Partnership is an alliance of South African NGOs working towards increasing the resilience of South Africa’s biodiversity and communities by reducing the impact of climate change. Their efforts include alleviating the water shortages by protecting ecosystems throughout South Africa. Supporting these NGOs will help prevent natural disasters, such as the drought, with added benefit of job creation and economic development.


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