Cape Town’s water crisis calls for attitudinal change

Women waiting to fill their containers
Copyright: Panos

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  • Cape Town of South Africa is having water crises, thanks to sustained drought
  • Residents are cutting water use by about half: 540 litres daily to 260 litres
  • Expert calls for strict control on water leaks and use of water for agriculture

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[JOHANESBURG] South African city of Cape Town has been experiencing a severe water crisis, making it come closer to other large cities globally such as Sao Paolo in Brazil that had intermittent water shut-offs in 2015.

The Western Cape Province of South Africa has for three years suffered the most sustained and punishing drought in years, experts say.

And according to Bernelle Verster, a researcher at the FutureWater Research Institute, University of Cape Town (UCT), the population has doubled in the last 30 years, thus increasing the demand for water, adding that the city, province and national governments did not plan for such an extreme drought.

Kevin Winter, an environmental and geographical scientist at FutureWater, UCT, told SciDev.Net this month (15 May), “The ultimate trigger is climate change, which has exposed all the weaknesses in [the water supply] system.”

“The ultimate trigger is climate change, which has exposed all the weaknesses in [the water supply] system.”

Kevin Winter, FutureWater

Winter explains that the frontal systems that originate in the southern Atlantic and bring cold, rainy weather to the Cape of Good Hope have recently often bypassed the most southerly part of the continent, a development that has scientists thinking hard and seeking solutions.

The Western Cape does not have the same vulnerability to the El Niño Southern Ocean Oscillation as the rest of South Africa, and scientists are wondering whether this change has been spurred by warming oceans or disturbances in the upper atmosphere, Winter adds.

“The problem is not limited to the Western Cape though,” writes Zachary Donnenfeld and others in a South African report published in March 2018.

Dam levels in South Africa’s Eastern Cape have fallen to worrying levels for extended periods.

According to South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation, dams in Lesotho were at 38.1 per cent in March.

“Malawi is experiencing the most severe prolonged dry spells,” added ACT Alliance, a global humanitarian organisation, in an alert published in February this year.

Francois Engelbrecht, an atmospheric modeller at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says that temperatures across semi-arid southern Africa will increase by more than six degrees Celsius before 2100, with a generally drier climate, more frequent droughts and heat waves. He adds that solutions have to be found.

Day Zero — when the taps run dry — has been postponed at least, thanks to residents reducing water usage from 540 litres per household daily in January 2015 to 280 litres in January 2018; and to 60-80 per cent reductions in water use by the province’s economically crucial agriculture sector, according to Carl Oppermann, general manager of Agri-Wes, the Western Cape affiliate of Agri-SA, a century-old federation of organisations representing various agricultural sectors. Agriculture uses about a third of the province’s water.

The knock-on effects include significant reductions in seasonal work for vulnerable farm workers.

Technology such as desalination plants is in the works, as is the use of groundwater although the city is cautious about drilling into groundwater resources, according to a letter from senior scientists warning of dangers to water quality and the integrity of water catchments released on 16 February.

“But fundamentally, we need a change of mindset to value water,” Verster says.

Seeing water as precious could drive careful use such as strict control of leaks and water wastage; re-use, with many residents are now using greywater to flush their toilets, as well as more targeted use in agriculture, Verster adds.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


[1] Zachary Donnenfeld and others A delicate balance: Water scarcity in South Africa (South African Report 13, March 2018)
[2] Drought emergency in Malawi ( ACT Alliance, 8 February 2018)
[3] Francois Engelbrecht Projections of future climate change over Africa (CSIR Natural Resources and the Environment, n.d.)
[4] Kaylynn Palm CT water crisis: Farmers cut water use by over 80 per cent (EWN, 7 February 2018)
[5] Water: 2017 market intelligence report (GreenCape, 2017)
[6] John Yeld UCT scientists convince City to drill cautiously into aquifer (GroundUp, 19 March 2018)