News Brief

Cape Town’s Water Crisis: Little Rain for A Lot of People

Extensive water management efforts have not prepared South Africa’s second biggest city to survive an extended drought at a time of rapid population growth.

February 20, 2018

Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, is running out of water despite conservation efforts.

The city center of Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa, with a population of four million. The city, increasingly at risk for severe droughts due to climate change, is running extremely low on water despite recent conservation efforts. 

Photo: Iwoelbern. License: Public domain.
Cape Town’s four million residents are expected to run out of water very soon.

By the end of January, the dams holding the city’s water supply were down to 26% of their capacity, and the government is warning that a “Day Zero”—when capacity drops below 13.5%—is increasingly likely in the coming months. At that point, the City would stop supplying water to most homes and businesses. Residents would have to line up to collect their ration of water. (According to the City, if the level drops below 10%, it may be difficult to get any water at all from the dams.)

In recent years Cape Town had begun to take extensive measures to conserve water—repairing leaks in the system, installing meters, and imposing tariffs to track and control use. In fact, in 2014 Cape Town had a plentiful supply of water and was considered a model for how cities should adapt to climate change.

But over the past three years, the city has suffered from a severe drought while experiencing a rapid increase in population. And not enough new water sources have been developed to serve the growing number of residents.

Strategies and blame

Cape Town set a consumption limit of 87 liters (23 gallons) of water per person per day as an initial strategy to mitigate the issue. But that was ineffective. According to the City, only around half of the residents were complying with that limit. Now, the limit has been reduced to 50 liters (13.2 gallons), and those who exceed it will be charged heavy fines.

In addition, Cape Town has issued increasingly strict rules about how municipal water may be used. New restrictions, put in place February 1st, prohibit the use of municipal water for, among other things:

  • irrigation,
  • swimming pools, and
  • ornamental water fountains or water features.

Though the restrictions direct customers to install efficient fixtures and fittings wherever possible, maximum flow and flush rates are not specified. Instead, customers are “encouraged” to flush toilets with rainwater, well water, or grey water.

The plumber’s role

Cape Town has also called on its plumbers to be leaders in water conservation by focusing, in their daily work, on locating and fixing leaks, installing efficient fittings, and promoting alternative water technologies like greywater and rainwater harvesting systems.

To assist in this effort, the City has published a “plumbing checklist” that outlines the process for finding leaks and checking the efficiency of existing fittings.

Water any way you can get it

The City is also hurrying to construct desalination plants and extract water from aquifers to supplement the main supply in the dams. But these projects will take time. The hope is that, if residents adhere to the new limit, and if there is a sufficient amount of rain in the coming months, “Day Zero” could be put off a bit longer.

While the local government casts blame on residents who have been irresponsible with water use, the residents are angry with City officials for not adequately planning. And the city government has criticized the national government for not providing funding for water projects that could have prevented this situation.

Climate scientists had warned the City several times over the last couple of decades that it was at risk for drought. They encouraged it to secure additional sources of water, rather than rely solely on its rainfall-dependent dams. According to climate models, the city will become warmer and drier, and rains will become more unpredictable.

Ripple effects

Beyond the immediate issue of the lack of water, there are concerns that the water shortage could also have a negative impact on public health, social order, and the city’s economy. Some officials are worried that disease could spread due to a reduction in hand-washing and basic hygiene.

The drought is threatening two pillars of South Africa’s economy: farming and tourism. Agricultural production is down, and if the water is shut off, many businesses in the city that normally draw visitors would have to close. There is also concern that, as the situation becomes more uncertain and tension among residents rises, the local police force will not be able to maintain order.


Cape Town's water supply has decreased in recent years due to drought and rapid increase in population.

Cape Town's water supply has decreased dramatically in recent years due to an extended drought and a rapid increase in population.

Graph: Discott. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.
Other cities in Africa—a continent that climate scientists describe as particularly vulnerable to extended, recurring droughts—are at risk of ending up in the same situation as Cape Town. And many of these cities have fewer resources than Cape Town, so they are even less prepared for such a crisis.

Economic inequalities are playing out in Cape Town as well. While residents in the wealthier suburbs of the city are installing private water tanks in their backyards, those living in the sprawling outskirts far from water distribution points—and who can’t afford to own a car—are left to wonder how they’ll get their water home.


Non-governmental organizations and others are stepping up to help, including at least one grassroots effort: a woman in East London, South Africa used social media to spread awareness of the crisis and ask people to donate bottled water. She received responses from people all across the country—and beyond—who wanted to help.

For information on various efforts to address the water shortage in Cape Town, follow these links:

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