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Cape Town: Down to Its Last Drops

Via Future Directions International, a report on South Africa’s dire water crisis:

The South African province of Western Cape is at serious risk of running out of water. Cape Town has experienced two years of its lowest-ever recorded rainfall and high summer temperatures. In early April, it was declared that the 26.2 per cent of water left in Cape Town’s dams would only last for the next 100 days. The bottom ten per cent is mostly unusable and current levels have now fallen to a record low of 21.2 per cent throughout the city’s six major dams. Cape Town has been declared a local disaster zone and is implementing Level 4 water restrictions, which allocates 100 litres per person per day and bans the use of municipal drinking water for irrigation, watering gardens and washing cars. It is predicted that even high winter rainfalls will not be sufficient to lift the current water restrictions.


South Africa has experienced severe drought since the 2015-16 El Niño phenomenon that resulted in two years of the country’s lowest rainfall since the beginning of records in 1904. In Western Cape, drought intervals are becoming shorter and winter rainfall is occurring later and more erratically. The effects of climate change mean that recovering from water shortages has become more difficult. In April 2005, dam levels in Cape Town reached a then all-time low of 26 per cent, but the city’s water supply was eventually relieved by the onset of winter rains. The current crisis, however, is more challenging due to uncertainty over the upcoming winter rainfall.

Cape Town overwhelmingly relies on stored surface water; its six major dams contribute to 99.6 per cent of the city’s water supply. Surface water is unable to sustain the growing city. Since 1996, the population has increased by 58 per cent. Over the same time, the stored water capacity of the dams rose by only 14 per cent. This comes amid a countrywide risk of long-term water insecurity. South Africa will experience physical water scarcity by 2025, according to a joint World Wide Fund for Nature and Boston Consulting Group report. Cape Town’s infrastructure puts further pressure on the water supply. Cape Town loses between 15 per cent and 17 per cent of its water through leakages and, while it is far below the national average of 36 per cent, this is a significant loss given the current crisis.

The water crisis in Western Cape will be a long-term issue. In March, the South African Government warned that El Niño drought conditions are likely to reoccur by next summer. The last El Niño contributed to drought conditions throughout southern Africa and ended only in May 2016. If the next El Niño is to occur before September, it will be the shortest interval between El Niño droughts since the mid-1960s. In an open letter to the City of Cape Town, the Congress of South African Trade Unions stated that, in the city, ‘all things being equal, there will be no water in the taps by May 2018’. The Union also claims that unless urgent measures are implemented, deaths and war will occur as a result of the water crisis. While armed conflict over water resources is highly unlikely in Western Cape, there is potential for instability.

In addition to water restrictions, the government has proposed several projects to address the escalating water crisis. The 277 million rand ($28 million) Berg River–Voëlvlei Augmentation Scheme will divert excess Berg River water into the Voëlvlei Dam. It is the most favourable option for boosting surface water levels and could be in place by 2018; however, the scheme is only capable of augmenting water supply levels for two to three years.

Cape Town has an untapped water source in the aquifer below Table Mountain. Groundwater extraction from the mountain could contribute up to 100 million litres of water per day by 2024. The environmental impact of such a scheme, however, is uncertain. Dr Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute argues that over-abstraction will cause contamination of surface water and degradation of trees and rivers.

A proposed large desalination plant could contribute 450 million litres of water to Cape Town per day. Several challenges, however, face desalination as a viable solution to the city’s water problems. The R15 billion ($1.51 billion) plant would increase water costs for residents. Over half of the R1.2 billion ($121 million) annual operating costs are due to desalination’s high electricity use, pressuring South Africa’s already strained energy security. Similarly, a proposed water recycling project costs R4.5 billion ($455 million) and requires high energy intensity.

Despite the challenges posed by the government’s proposed solutions for the water crisis, implementing a range of programmes is essential for achieving water security in the Western Cape. Water restrictions reduce short-term pressures but fail to address the long-term situation facing South Africa. Additionally, an overreliance on stored surface water leaves the population vulnerable to droughts. Diversifying water sources, and implementing sustainable long-term solutions, including groundwater, desalination and water recycling, will contribute to reducing water insecurity.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 25th, 2017 at 3:40 am and is filed under South Africa.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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