Cape Town's Drought Disaster

Cape Town in the Western Cape of South Africa is currently in the midst of a severe drought. Cape Town is a known water-scarce region, but several years of unusually low rainfall have led to unprecedented water shortages. The city’s water supply is largely reliant on large dams, however, in mid-December these dams were recorded to be at 33% capacity, indicating that day zero is looming. This is the day that officials record dam capacity levels to drop below 13.5% at which point water taps will be cut off and Capetonians will be required to report to checkpoints across the city to collect their allowance of daily water. Day zero is currently predicted to occur sometime in mid-April.

Despite officials putting in place daily limits per resident of 87 litres per day, 60% of residents are repeatedly exceeding this allowance daily. This raises the question of how effective the new, lower, guided allowance of 50 litres a day- in place since the 18th January - will be in pushing back day zero. It’s understandable that so many residents are not abiding by allowances, considering that an individual uses approximately 15 litres per minute for a shower, and even the same amount for simply flushing the toilet.

The main tourism season in South Africa, along with its influx of tourists, comes with increased resource usage. Officials have made it clear that tourists only represent a 1-3% increase in population size during peak tourism season, so restricting travel would not make a great difference to the water crisis. In addition, South Africa is reliant on tourism for 9.4% of the country’s GDP and is not a sector that can be afford to be lost, even temporarily. Instead, officials are encouraging tourism awareness. However, often, tourists only first hear of the situation when they are arriving into Cape Town airport when an announcement is made about the crisis, and do not know anything in advance of their trip. Tourists are being encouraged to book eco-friendly accommodation, including places that are recycling rainwater for showers and taking other water conservation actions. It’s also recommended that people use refillable water bottles, as producing a bottle of water takes up to six times as much water than is contained in the bottle.

I recently returned from a trip to South Africa where I was informed of the drought on landing into Cape Town International Airport. I admit that I had not been aware of the problem before travelling, but once in arrivals there were plenty of signs and displays of water bottles hanging up which immediately portrayed the crisis the region was experiencing. It gave me a new-found respect for water as a finite resource, something that as a Westerner I take for granted. I’m guilty of taking very long showers simply for the warmth of it. But since returning home I’ve found myself being far more conscious of turning off the tap while I brush my teeth and always finishing a bottle of water. 

If visiting South Africa in the upcoming months, please try and support the population by adapting the same water conservation strategies of the Capetonians who are the ones having to deal with this crisis in the long-term.