Water Crisis

DROUGHT SPECIAL: Day Zero is inevitable

People are looking to point the blame – who or what caused the water crisis in Cape Town? Whether it be the fast-growing population, the carelessness of residents to reduce their consumption or a misplacement of government responsibility – the question is becoming redundant.

April 20 12 16 Mid May 2018 (updated: 6/2/2018) day zero will come. People are losing faith in local authorities, and Cape Town’s contingency plan is at best too little, too late.

Looking at the experiences of other drought-stricken major cities offers an insight into overcoming dire circumstances:

Sao Paulo (Brazil):

Once known as ‘the city of drizzle’ São Paulo faced its biggest recorded drought between 2014 and 2015. Although the city experienced a drought in 1953, its population has grown to over 22 million – exceeding expectations. Much like Cape Town now, the city’s reservoir levels were decreasing at an alarming rate, reaching a low of 5%, or 40 days’ water supply.

The World Bank intervened, with the help of city officials, and introduced the following proposals:

  1. Linking up canals, pipelines or, most importantly, linking up the systems that feed into the billing dam the Rio Pequeno and the Rio Grande
  2. Increase the treatment capacity of existing water treatment plants with ultrafiltration membranes. This made it possible to use previously unusable water.

The World Bank financed these hugely expensive projects through facilitating public/private partnerships. This resulted in the production of 5,000L more water per second- or roughly 15% more per day, seeing Sao Paulo through the drought.

Gaborone (Botswana):

Since the new millennium, there has been a decline in the total volume of the Gaborone Reservoir, the leading supplier of water for the capital city Gaborone and the greater area. In 2014 and 2015 Gaborone faced its biggest drought in 34 years. At full capacity, the reservoir holds 141.1 million cubic metres. But in December 2014, the reservoir held only 8.5 million cubic meters, roughly 6% of the total capacity. Such low levels meant it was no longer possible to pump water from the Reservoir. The Gaborone Dam dried up for the first time in March 2015 as water levels dropped below 5%, leaving the capital and surrounding areas reliant on the North-South Carrier and the Molatedi Dam, which provides 16% of the city’s needs. The city also drew on wells in surrounding villages for 25 million litres of water each day. However, the biggest impact was encouraging residents to take responsibility and react to leaking tabs and pipes to save enough water. With only 230,000 residents compared to the Mother city’s 4 million this undertaking was certainly easier to manage.

Cape Town (South Africa):

The problem boils down to sharp population growth and a failure to plan alternative water sources to augment the reservoirs behind six dams, some of which are rapidly dwindling to arid, sandy stretches. The dams have fallen to 15.2% capacity of usable water, compared with 77% in September 2015. But only 39% of citizens are meeting the target of 87 litres water consumption per person per day. From 1st of February, the daily limit per person per day will drop from 50 litres. Since the city mainly concentrated on current water management and reducing residents’ water consumption as opposed to the installation of desalination plants, there are few alternatives other than to take individual initiative to reduce water consumption. Plans for desalinations plants may come to fruition, but since the city identified that option as a viable alternative way too late, they would not be ready until mid-April – perilously close to Day Zero.

Different media outlets now report that officials decided to access the aquifer beneath Table Mountain – a project that is not without risk.  If the water level of the aquifer is dropping below sea level, undrinkable salt water could contaminate the aquifer and even higher costs for the required water treatment. Keep in mind once aquifers are depleted, the state will have no backup supplies to surface water. Desalination could make up some of the difference, but can be expensive and is energy-intensive.

Thoughts for the future

Boschendal wine estate

Because the South African government only told residents to reduce water consumption as opposed to searching for viable alternatives for farmers and businesses, many of these organisations took fate into their own hands. There are two wine farms that came up with very interesting solutions to cut down water consumption and even getting dams, that are supplying the farms with water, to spill over. How is that possible if dam levels in the region are constantly decreasing to alarmingly low levels?

It is not only the management of the water after it rains that is essential to conservation, but also the preparation of the dam to ensure that no alien plants are situated in the area of the dam. These plants may come from a different environment and take water from the reserve into their own ecosystem. So, this alien plant cleaning might not have an impact on the rainfall or water flows in general, but the elimination of those plants may save 30% more water than if they are left unattended. Furthermore the great soil quality that results from those measures also reduces the need for fertilizers and overall results in healthier soil.

What we need to take away from this drought is that preparation is everything and waiting for Day Zero and hoping is not enough. Boschendal, a wine estate in Stellenbosch, did exactly that. They were prepared and started over three years ago to take care of the soil quality and their water supply. On the other side of Simonsberg in Stellenbosch, the dam stood at 97% 2 weeks ago.  The Greater Simonsberg Conservancy — who cleared alien vegetation in the catchment area and watercourses above the dam – took responsibility for their water supply  and managed to get nature back into balance.

Clearing alien plants in the short term will yield little impact, but it will be essential for the coming decades. So even if it is not for the current drought it will protect us from future droughts. (Read the article here.)

Put a price on water

Another important topic that needs to be talked about is the pricing of water. Water is not correctly priced which makes it impossible to estimate its value. Though it is an essential human right, it needs to be priced correctly to ensure that it is used efficiently and effectively. The notion that water is an economic resource as well as a public good may have to become more widely accepted as the supply tightens. Countries need to figure out how to better value its environmental services. For example, Botswana, one of the largest mining exporters in the world, doesn’t charge companies for the use of water. Mining companies take water from boreholes and no user fee is charged. Once they’ve put in the infrastructure, the water is free. If a company mines diamonds, it pays a royalty to government. If the company mines water, they don’t pay a cent.


This drought will make Cape Town’s residents learn the hard way to save water in the future. If(!) day zero arrives, the military will step in because the police won’t be able to handle those massive crowds all approaching the 200 water stations around the city. Businesses, restaurants and schools will shut down because the fear of diseases caused by unflushed toilets and overall unhygienic conditions will get too big. We hope that at least in the next months before day zero, and at day zero the whole city will finally stand together to overcome this natural disaster together not only 39%. 100% of residents need to take ownership of the issue now, day zero is coming.