The View from Cape Town: Water Insecurity in the Anthropocene*

By: Jessica Toale

Jessica is a political and international development specialist. She’s spent over a decade working as an advisor to politicians in the UK parliament, and with UN Agencies and governments around the world. She’s had her work on foreign and international development policy published in The Guardian, The New Internationalist and the Fabian Society. She’s also spoken at key international development policy events at Chatham House, RUSI, the Fabian Society, and PS21 to name a few.

Learn more on our project page: Cape Town’s Drought & Water Scarcity.

The city of Cape Town is famously nestled around the base of Table Mountain, peering out over the south Atlantic Ocean. Its location has made it a meeting point for centuries – from Dutch and British colonial traders, to the tourists of today who come for the breathtaking coastal views and green rolling vineyards. Despite this natural abundance, the city has been suffering severe water shortages.

I spent 10 days in Cape Town in August. The water crisis was apparent everywhere. It was one of the main topics of conversation amongst friends. Notices pinned up at tourist attractions, shopping centres and restaurants encouraged you to save water. Public bathrooms have replaced hand soap with hand sanitizer and asked customers to refrain from flushing toilets. Visitors quickly became familiar with the mantra: ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.’

Everyone was restricted to use only 50 litres per day. By comparison, the average American uses between 302 and 378 litres per day.

While rain began to fall during my visit – much to the excitement of residents – overall the city has experienced far below average precipitation for the past three years. As a result, dam levels hit historic lows, putting into jeopardy the city’s water resources. Last year, the city narrowly avoided ‘Day Zero’, the day it would be forced to shut off the taps. But despite the relief brought by the unexpected rain, it merely delayed the inevitable.

It’s a strange feeling to be in such a beautiful city surrounded by water, only to know that you aren’t allowed to use very much of it. And in a city characterized by stark inequalities and the legacy of Apartheid, the issue of access to a finite yet fundamental resource also becomes a social justice issue.  

In some ways the crisis has had an extremely leveling impact. City government imposed restrictions significantly reduced the water consumption of affluent residents, bringing it closer to that of poor residents in the townships who queue for water everyday. But of course a major disparity still exists, and whether these changes in behaviour will stick in the long-run are far from certain. A major rethink about how residents and the city government use and distribute their resources is long overdue.

During my time in Cape Town, I learned about strategies people had employed  to save water. Affluent residents of Cape Town no longer filled up their swimming pools or washed their cars. They took less than 90-second showers, used grey water to flush the toilets, and many dug boreholes or set up tanks to collect rainwater. The people I met generally felt positive about the impact the shortages had had on their own awareness of the issue and on their consumption behaviour. Many found that it was perfectly possible to use only 50 litres per day and felt that the government should not lift the restriction.

In Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, however, life appeared to continue as normal. The townships use a miniscule amount of the municipal water supplies. Nearly all people use far below the restricted levels, and many residents in informal parts of the townships are forced to queue to collect their water from standpipes. One resident explained to me that they have effectively been living at ‘Day Zero’ for as long as he can remember. His only wish was for the City government to better engage with Khayelitsha residents on supporting the city’s water saving efforts and the job opportunities that might result.

This didn’t stop some wealthier city residents from grumbling about subsidizing water to these areas. Water tariffs have been raised as part of the City government’s response, which is a widely unpopular yet a likely unavoidable measure - affecting important industries and residents in both wealthy and poor areas of the city.

Finally, the most shocking part of my visit was to a community in the Klein Karoo, an agricultural area in the Western Cape outside of the City. This area has not seen any rain in four years and life has become very hard. Once lush farmland is barren. It’s almost alien to see rivers that flowed, and boreholes that are left empty by years of drought. The impact here is not only on the farmers who are being forced to sell their farms and their way of life. It also impacts the people who work on these farms and their animals that are starving, thanks to a lack of land to graze on. Here people can only hope and pray for rain.

The City of Cape Town Government has taken steps to mitigate the worst of the current crisis, and have even floated some wacky ideas like importing an iceberg from the Arctic, but not the Antarctic. Thanks to some late season rainfall and efforts by citizen’s to reduce their water consumption, dam levels had recovered to 76% as of the first of October. This is only slightly below the level needed to get the City through its next dry summer period.

Communities will have to adapt to survive our changing climate now and in the future. Climate change is creating extreme weather variability around the world, and we can expect this only to get worse across the board in the coming years. While water shortages have been an issue in Cape Town and the Western Cape for decades, the scant levels of rainfall over the past few years will be the new normal, and with it comes water use restrictions. In Cape Town at least, it appears that it is time for significant and lasting changes in how people consume and live. Cape Town can be a guidepost of how to cope with this new normal.  


*Anthropocene refers to our current epoch, where our role as humans has a greater impact on natural climate systems than the systems themselves.


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