Cape Town’s water crisis shows the reality for cities on the front line of climate change

Like many South Africans, I went to the beach this Christmas, visiting relatives in Cape Town. It is a common journey, given that we have one of the world’s great holiday destinations on our doorstep.

Indeed, in the past year there were over five million passenger journeys into Cape Town International Airport, and overseas arrivals have grown by a massive 23% year on year. All these visitors bring the city billions of rand in local revenue and help to create tens of thousands of jobs.

But Cape Town is beginning to win international headlines for something other than the stunning views of Table Mountain, beautiful beaches and fantastic local wines. A looming water crisis could cause unprecedented damage to the city’s booming tourism industry, and much of the rest of the economy, bringing with it serious civil unrest and genuine human tragedy.

Day Zero – the moment the city completely runs out of water and the taps are turned off – is fast approaching. One of the consequences of climate change is more extreme weather patterns, which for many parts of the world will mean more frequent droughts. And after three years of unprecedented droughts, during which the winter (June to September) rains have almost entirely failed to materialise, Cape Town’s dams are now perilously low. 

In desperate attempts to stave off disaster, the city has put in place consumption limits for residents. Previously 87 litres per person per day, it is now down to 50 litres. To put this in context, a typical bath might be 200 litres and a five-minute shower 70 litres. One washing machine load is around 50 litres, the same amount as five flushes of the toilet.

Of course, I was aware of the water restrictions in place there before heading down with the family. But the reality upon arrival made me realise that Cape Town is teetering on the brink of disaster. This crisis will have both human and economic dimensions, showing the world what climate change impacts will really mean for the cities on the front line.

The most noticeable immediate consequence of this is that people have stopped washing. Greasy has become the new cool. Where individuals with questionable hygiene were once avoided, in Cape Town today it is a signal of virtue. Turn up to work with the same shirt as you had on yesterday and you’ll be positively feted. Washed cars, watered gardens and full swimming pools are deeply frowned upon.

The immediate economic impacts from this are already widespread – from depressed sales for businesses that sell personal care and laundry products, through to the rapidly diminished employment prospects for those involved in car washing and pool cleaning. With agriculture one of the largest industries in the Cape, thousands of workers have already been affected as production is reduced.

Hospitality and leisure have also taken a hit. The experience of dining at a restaurant is certainly not enhanced by a new staff role: handing out tokens to every fourth patron entering the toilets, where only those with tokens are allowed to flush. Similarly, the prospect of going to the gym is a lot less appealing when you are washing yourself and your family out of a single bucket of soapy water.

Sadly, despite these limits, citywide consumption has stayed stubbornly above the 500 million litres of water per day target. With restrictions in place, it has still been averaging above 600 million due to an estimated 60% of residents exceeding their allowances.

Countdown to chaos

This is all leading up to Day Zero, where 3.8 million residents will have their taps run dry and Cape Town will earn the ignominious title of being the first major city in the world to run completely out of water. Until recently this was set at 12 April, but this has been pushed back to 9 July at the time of writing thanks to sharp restrictions, alongside a reallocation of water use from agricultural to municipal use.

Nonetheless, Day Zero will see three-quarters of the city’s taps being turned off, excluding commercial zones, hospitals and informal settlements. Those without water will have to queue up to get their 25 litres per person per day from one of 180 water collection sites. With locations still not disclosed, the sites will have between 50 to 600 taps available.

Unsurprisingly, there’s real concern about how the water collection points will work. Assuming one person in every household goes to fetch water every day, with an average of 2.5 people per household, this works out at the equivalent to nearly 9,000 people being served by each collection point.

Estimates for waiting times at these points vary between a frustrating 4 hours at the low end, to an utterly infuriating 17 hours at the high end. These queues will happen seven days a week. The police force and army will be deployed to assist and monitor collection points, ready for the reactions that might be expected when people get thirsty, grubby, hot and restless.  Medical personnel will also be present at all times in case of emergencies.

There is a very real prospect that alongside this we will see some truly tragic scenes as well. Not everyone can get to the water points. There are the elderly, disabled and infirm.

Although there are discussions in place to provide mobile water services, it is not clear the city knows where these people are. Nor do they necessarily have access to the right infrastructure, important equipment such as tankers, and logistical routes to serve their needs. 

Moreover, because 25 litres of water weighs 25 kilograms – or 100 kilograms for a family of four – it is likely that only strong, able-bodied adults will be waiting to transport the water. The productivity costs across the economy associated with taking those people and having them spending hours of the working day standing in lines and carrying water should not be underestimated.

Then there are the economic impacts beyond the immediate crisis. Turning off the supply could cause huge damage to water infrastructure, which is designed to have pressure within the system. When the system is turned back on we could see many new leaks, with the cost of switching off and restarting sewage treatment plants running into the billions of rand.

Reduction in municipal water sales reduces revenue at a time when the city has to boost spending to ensure supplies. Moody’s has already postulated that the city’s borrowing costs may rise as this event lowers its credit rating. And the city’s two main industries – agriculture and tourism – will both suffer serious falls in revenue and employment, with consequent drops in local spending and tax contributions.

It is anticipated that the Day Zero provisions will last no longer than three months. Everyone is hoping that reduced consumption and the winter rains will combine to ease the crisis, at least until new local infrastructure can be put in place to provide more water, or pipelines are built to bring it from outside the region.

Long-term impacts

But each of these new infrastructure projects comes with a cost. Drilling into local aquifers and extracting water can cause seawater encroachment, meaning the aquifers will be forever diminished. And desalination plants to make fresh water from seawater are hugely energy intensive, resulting in increased carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change in a country already facing energy shortfalls.

As we move towards Day Zero, those that can afford to do so are making plans to leave Cape Town. Those that cannot are about to get first-hand experience of a situation that many others might face in coming decades, where cities fail to build resilience to climate change impacts.

Already many municipalities throughout South Africa are considering what interventions can be implemented to protect themselves from situations like these in future. Often these are simple schemes, such as retrofitting rain water tanks to schools and hospitals to be used as toilet water, which eases the water burden and protects from the hygiene issues associated with limited flushing.

Getting smarter about water use and improving efficiency across all uses will hopefully provide respite for Cape Town in years to come, as well as for other communities such as Port Elizabeth and Kwa-Zulu Natal, where similar concerns are already being raised about water shortages.

With Day Zero now finally pushed back into the winter months, everyone locally is hoping that it will be a very rainy season. One that will be generous enough to see Day Zero called off completely, replenishing the reservoirs sufficiently to take the City through another long, dry summer.

For the rest of us, we need to hope that Cape Town acts as a wake-up call to show governments, businesses and citizens why we need to take far more aggressive action on climate change and accelerate sustainable development. It is only through urgent, concerted action that we can prevent far more situations like this arising in the future.