Cape Town Drought

After some eighteen months of commuting between Europe and South Africa with 90-day tourist visas, I arrived in Cape Town in mid-January of this year with a 4-year residency permit.  It had involved several months of meeting many bureaucratic requirements (Applying for South African Residency), but finally I could stay, at least for four years, with the possibility of extending.

But no sooner had I landed, when my driver made me aware of the seriousness of the Cape drought situation.  At the end of the seasonal rains in 2014, the dams were almost full, but three years of below normal rainfall had left them in a precarious situation; the dam levels were at just over 20% capacity.  Little capacity remained, as the last 10% cannot easily be accessed.

Shortly after, the local government reduced the legal consumption from 87 litres per person per day to 50 litres.  Now I had no idea of what normal water consumption per day would be, but I was told that in Sweden 200 litres per day was normal and in the US 300.  So how to get down to 50 L per day?

Copious advice was available.  Obviously filling swimming pools, watering gardens and washing cars were out of the question.  We were advised that a 30 second shower used about 18 litres, a full flush of a toilet, 9 litres, and a quick flush, 5 litres.  And a washing machine and a dish washer about 25-35 litres each, depending on the make and model.  So, 50 litres per day per person was not a lot of water, at least not by western standards.

In the bars and restaurants, clients were urged not to flush toilets, unless absolutely necessary – ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if brown, flush it down’.  And in the Radisson Hotel, near the Waterfront, there was and still is, an exhibit to educate guests on the water situation and the impact of having a bath or a 90-second shower.

Dam Levels 2007-2017

Water usuage

But how did Cape Town get in this precarious situation, that attracted the international press naming of Cape Town as the first major city at risk of running out of water?

Obviously, the failure of the annual winter rainfall was a major contributor to the crisis.  But I suspect that there has been no recent increase in the capacity to store water in the ‘wet’ years.  The existing dam walls need to be radically raised where feasible, to avoid the overflows in the wet years spilling to the sea.

Of course, the population of Cape Town is not static; according to Premier Helen Zille, between the census of 1996 and that of 2011, the population increased by 45% to 3.8 million.  I often wonder how they count the hordes of homeless and vagrants that one encounters in the relatively prosperous area in which we live, never mind in the ‘no-go’ townships, which sane people avoid.

And what about the tourist trade?  In recent years, Cape Town has been the ‘in place´ to visit and be seen.  But tourists are predictably not enthused about restricted showering and toilet flushing and choose to spend their money elsewhere.  After the ‘negative news’ hit the international press, the hotels, restaurants and bars of the city reflected the paucity of business.  It has not been a great year for the tourism industry.

In February the government announced that ‘Day Zero’ would be in March, the day when the water supply would be switched off and that citizens would have to collect their reduced daily allowance of 20 liters per person day.  This would be distributed at some 200 stand-pipes located near supermarkets and other gathering spots and the distribution would be supervised by the military.  There was no information as to how the ration of water would be accounted for.

Predictably there was immediately a run on bottled water.  The supermarket shelves were stripped dry and there was not a drop to be seen anywhere.  When a new shipment arrived in the morning, it soon evaporated.  The supermarkets limited the purchase per client, but the shelves remained empty.

Then ‘Day Zero’ was suddenly postponed and then postponed again.  There was still no rain, but the conservation efforts of the population and eliminating water to the farms, resulted in a 60% reduction of water consumption.  At least that was the official reason for the postponements.

And in early May it started to rain, not heavily, but persistently, and the dams started to fill.  Day by day the levels grew, from 20.9% on 7 May, through 30% on 5 June, 40% on 20 June, and 50% on 3 July.  As of today, the level is at 56.5%.

Is the drought over?  Probably it is for the next twelve months, but one must remember that the farms are still not receiving any water and they are suffering.  Until the stored water level gets to 70% of capacity, the emergency should not be declared as over for this year.Capture


To contribute to available water supplies in the future, the local government has set the objective of obtaining at least 10% from alternative supplies:

  • Desalination plants are being constructed
  • Wells are being drilled
  • A blitz on leaking pipes
  • Treating of effluent water

I recall my old friend in Toronto, Peter Pedrette, relating of when he was a junior quantity surveyor in London, he was being shown around a water treatment plan, and in a break was offered a glass of water from a tap.  After he drank it, he was told that the water had been through at least six people.

For cities, such as Cape Town, in the future reliance on natural rainfall may not be sufficient to satisfy local requirements.  Water, no matter the source, will have to be viewed as a valuable resource, to be cleansed, treated and returned to general consumption.

No longer can we take for granted that water will flow when we turn on the tap.