Cape Town water crisis

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Graph of total reservoir water stored in the Western Cape's largest six dams from 30 June 2013 to 31 March 2018. The graph illustrates the declining water storage levels over the course of the Cape Town water crisis, and the impact of reduced usage since early 2018. The prediction shows storage levels reaching around 12% by the end of May 2018 based on normal (pre-crisis) usage. Data obtained from the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG)

The Cape Town water crisis in South Africa began in 2015, resulting in a severe water shortage in the region, most notably affecting the City of Cape Town. In early 2018, the dam levels were predicted to decline to critically low levels by April, the City announced plans for "Day Zero", when the municipal water supply would largely be shut off if a particular lower limit of water storage was reached. Potentially making Cape Town the first major city to run out of water.[1][2][3] Through water saving measures and water supply augmentation the City had reduced its daily water usage by more than half to around 500 million litres (110,000,000 imp gal; 130,000,000 US gal) per day in March 2018. By June 2018 dam levels had increased to 43% of capacity, which enabled the City of Cape Town to announce that "Day Zero" was unlikely for 2019.[4] In September, with dam levels close to 70%, the city began easing water restrictions.[5]


The Cape Town region experiences a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and winter rainfall. Water is supplied largely from the six major dams of the Western Cape Water Supply System which are situated in the nearby mountainous areas.[6] The dams are recharged by rain falling in the catchment areas, largely during the cooler winter months of May to August, and dam levels decline during the dry summer months of November to April during which urban water use increases and irrigation takes place in the agricultural areas.

The City of Cape Town's population has grown from 2.4 million residents in 1995 to an estimated 4.3 million by 2018, representing a 79 percent population increase in 23 years, whereas dam water storage only increased by 15 percent in the same period.[7] In 2016/2017, 64.5% of the City's water supply went to formal residential users, while 3.6 percent went to informal settlements.[8]

From 1950 to 1999, the City's usage of treated water grew at 4% per year in line with the population growth. Peak water usage in 1999 was 335 million cubic metres (335 gigalitres) per year. Planning to accommodate this growth in water demand on the Western Cape Water Supply System commenced as early as 1990.[9] Periods of low winter rainfall in 2000/2001 and 2003/2004 resulted in water restrictions being imposed.[10][11] In about 2003 the City entered into an agreement with the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry for the construction of the Berg River Dam and Supplement Scheme and also commenced water demand management. In 2009, the storage capacity of the dams supplying Cape Town was increased by 17 percent from 768 to 898 million cubic metres when the Berg River Dam and Supplement scheme were completed.[12]

In 2007, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry predicted that the growing demand on the Western Cape Water Supply System would exceed supply if water conservation and demand management measures were not implemented by the City and other municipalities.[13] Although the City's water demand management measures and those of the other urban users were relatively successful in reducing water demand, the severe drought from 2015 to 2017, perhaps with a recurrence interval of about 1 in 300 years, required the City and all users to implement severe restrictions.


The cause of the water crisis in the Western Cape was the extreme drought that exceeded the planning norms of the Department of Water and Sanitation, which is responsible for the planning of all surface and ground water supplies. It is believed that water scarcity, caused by an extreme drought, was exacerbated by 50% population growth in the last decade, agricultural usage, invasive plant species, and inadequate response to imposed restrictions.[14] Although the rainfall pattern tends to cycle between different stations, there were a clear decline since 2016.

A study conducted by the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town undertook statistical analyses and determined that the low rainfall between the years 2015 and 2017 was a very rare and extreme event.[15]

Some scientists believe that the drought may have been exacerbated by climate change with a one degree Celsius increase in temperature over the past century. Models predict that the average temperature in Cape Town will increase by another 0.25 degrees Celsius in the next ten years, which may increase the likelihood and severity of drought. Climate modelling suggests a likely decrease in rainfall, and it has been suggested that the recent drought may be the first evidence supporting this prediction. There is additional concern that several other cities may have similar occurrences of water scarcity.[16]

A concern is that the Western Cape Water Supply System is based on the hydrological records of previous years. Climate change may alter precipitation patterns, leading to less stable sources of water and higher rates of water evaporation. Agriculture uses about 29% of the water supplied by the Western Cape Water Supply System, and was also severely restricted during the period of drought.[17]


Water levels as a percentage of total dam capacity by year.[7]
Major dams Capacity (megalitres) 8 October 2018[18] 14 May 2018[19] 15 May 2017 15 May 2016 15 May 2015 15 May 2014
Berg River Dam 130 010 99.4 39.2 32.4 27.2 54.0 90.5
Steenbras Lower 33 517 91.9 35.4 26.5 37.6 47.9 39.6
Steenbras Upper 31 767 87.7 59.6 56.7 56.9 57.8 79.1
Theewaterskloof Dam 480 188 58.8 12.0 15.0 31.3 51.3 74.5
Voelvlei Dam 164 095 96.2 14.5 17.2 21.3 42.5 59.5
Wemmershoek Dam 58 644 95.1 48.4 36.0 48.5 50.5 58.8
Total stored (megalitres) 898 221 684 030 191 843 190 300 279 954 450 429 646 137
Total % Storage 76.2 21.4 21.2 31.2 50.1 71.9


After good rains in 2013 and 2014, the City of Cape Town began experiencing a drought in 2015, the first of three consecutive years of dry winters brought on possibly by the El Niño weather pattern and perhaps by climate change.[20] Water levels in the City's dams declined from 71.9 percent in 2014 to 50.1 percent in 2015.[7] On 1 January 2016, previous water restrictions of Level 1 from 2005 had been lifted to Level 2 by the City and on 1 November 2016 it elevated these to Level 3, when the Department of Water and Sanitation gazetted water restrictions for urban and agricultural use. Significant droughts in other parts of South Africa ended in August 2016 when heavy rain and flooding occurred in the interior of the country,[21] but the drought in the Western Cape remained.


The City increased water restrictions to Level 3B on 1 February 2017 and by the end of the dry season in May 2017, the drought was declared the City's worst in a century, with storage in dams being less than 10 percent of their usable capacity.[22] Level 4 water restrictions were imposed on 1 June 2017, limiting the usage of water to 100 litres per person per day.[23] Overall rainfall in 2017 was the lowest since records commenced in 1933.[24]

A map of the major dams that supply water to Cape Town

With the dry summer season approaching, the City increased its existing water restrictions to Level 4B on 1 July 2017, and to Level 5 on 3 September 2017, banning outdoor and non-essential use of water, encouraging the use of greywater for toilet flushing, and aiming to limit the overall per person water usage to 87 litres per day, for a total consumption of 500 million litres per day.[17] In order to achieve this target the public were exhorted to limit their personal household usage to 50 litres per person per day.

By early October 2017, following a low rainfall winter, Cape Town had an estimated five months of storage available before water levels would be depleted.[17] In the same month, the City of Cape Town issued an emergency water plan to be rolled-out in multiple phases depending on the severity of the water shortage. Phase 1 compromising "water rationing through extreme pressure reduction" was implemented immediately. In Phase 2, post "Day Zero", water would have been shut off to most of the system except to places of key water access. Phase 3 would have been the point at which the City would no longer be able to draw water from surface dams in the Western Cape Water Supply System and there would have been a limited period of time before the water supply system fails.[25][26][27]

In mid-October 2017 the City was criticised by some of the water desalination companies for the slow pace of procurement, high level of bureaucracy, lack of urgency, and the inadequate scale of the proposed water supply projects,[28] however on 26 October 2017 it was announced that the Cape Town City Manager would be given special powers to take drought-related actions that would not have to follow the City's normal decision making and approval process. This announcement came after a review of the City's decision making processes found that the City of Cape Town failed to adequately and timeously deal with the disaster."[29]


Theewaterskloof Dam at approximately 12% on 10 February 2018

On 1 January 2018 the City declared Level 6 water restrictions of 87 litres per person per day. In February 2018, the City increased restrictions to Level 6B limiting usage to 50 litres per person per day.[17]

On 24 January 2018, the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, stated that the "provision of bulk water supply is a National Government mandate" as the Department of Water and Sanitation is responsible for funding the expansion of the water supplies from surface and ground water sources. The Provincial Cabinet also announced that it was drawing up plans with the South African Police Service for a strategy to deploy officers at water distribution points across the City after "Day Zero".[30]

In mid-January 2018, previous Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that the City would be forced to shut off most of the municipal water supply if conditions did not change. Level 7 water restrictions, "Day Zero", would be declared when the water level of the major dams supplying the City reached 13.5%. Municipal water supplies would largely be switched off, and residents would have to rely on 149 water collection points around the City to collect a daily ration of 25 litres of water per person.[31][32] This would further affect Cape Town's economy, because employees would have to take time off from work to wait in line for water.[33] Water supply would be maintained in the City's CBD, in informal settlements (where water is already collected from central locations) and to essential services such as hospitals. At the time of the announcement, "Day Zero" was projected to take place on 22 April 2018, but soon thereafter this was revised to 12 April.[34][35][36] The "Day Zero" projections were based on the fortnightly changes in dam storage levels, assuming that the rates of decline would continue unchanged, with no further rainfall or change in water demand.[37]

In February 2018, the Groenland Water User Association (a representative body for farmers in the Elgin Grabouw agricultural area near Cape Town) began releasing an additional 10 billion litres of water from their Eikenhof Dam at no cost. This water was transferred into the Upper Steenbras Dam at no cost.[38]

Cape Town's largest reservoir, Theewaterskloof, was at 11% capacity in March 2018

Residential water usage declined significantly under the Level 6B restrictions to a low on 12 March 2018 of 511 million litres per day, the closest yet to the targeted level of 450 million litres per day. Agricultural use also declined significantly after irrigators had used their restricted allocations. As the reductions in water demand took effect after April,[39][40][41][42][37][3] the City moved "Day Zero" back in stages and on 28 June postponed "Day Zero" indefinitely.[43]

As dam levels rose, the national Department of Water and Sanitation announced that bulk water restrictions would remain in place until levels reached 85%.[44] In September, with dam levels close to 70%, the city reduced consumer water restrictions from level 6B to level 5.[5]

Severity of the drought[edit]

Research on long-term weather data done by the University of Cape Town found that the period from 2015-2017 had been the driest 3-year period since 1933, and 2017 was the driest year since 1933, and possibly earlier, since comparable data before 1933 was not available. It also found that a drought of this severity would statistically occur approximately once every 300 years.[24]


Poster issued in 2017 by Western Cape government calling for people to conserve water
Poster on the inside of a public toilet in Cape Town in 2018
Capetonians voluntarily queuing for water at the Newlands Spring
Turned off tap and hand sanitizer in public restroom in Cape town 2018

The 60% restriction in 2018 of water usage for irrigation resulted in the loss of 37,000 jobs in the Western Cape Province and an estimated 50,000 people being pushed below the poverty line due to job losses, inflation and increases in the price of food.[45] By February 2018, the agricultural sector had incurred R14 billion (US$1.17 billion) in losses due to the water shortage.[46] Analysts "estimate that the water crisis will cost some 300,000 jobs in agriculture and tens of thousands more in the service, hospitality and food sectors".[33]

Urban residents were requested not to flush the toilet after urinating, to flush using rainwater or greywater after defecating, and to reduce the length and frequency of showers. In order to conserve water hand sanitizer was provided in offices and public buildings for use instead of conventional hand-washing. Some cafes began using plastic and paper cups and plates to reduce dishwashing.

The City recommended that residents keep 10 litres of water as an emergency drinking supply in the event of possible temporary interruptions in supply.

Public health[edit]

Public health professionals raised concerns about diseases that could be spread via faecal-oral contamination as a result of less hand-washing. Public health companies, research centres and health providers were also worried about the impact that the water crisis could have had on health services.

Inadequate sanitation could have led to diarrhoeal diseases, which kill 2.2 million people every year worldwide, with most deaths occurring among children younger than 5 years of age. With a population of around 4.3 million and a population density of around 1500 per square kilometre it was suggested that this could have lead to diseases like cholera and other spreading rapidly without proper sanitation, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Cape Town. Without clean water the public health consequences could have been increased by insects in dirty waters, which might have caused the further spread of diseases.[47] Officials warned that water-borne illnesses such as cholera, hepatitis A and typhoid fever would "likely become more prevalent" as residents began storing water in contaminated containers.[48]

Fire risks[edit]

There was concern that fire risk would increase as the environment and infrastructure became increasingly dry. This was especially significant for large industrial sites and warehousing as fire on one site could spread more easily to other buildings in close proximity. Fire suppression system might also have failed due to reduced water pressure in higher lying areas.[48][49]

Occupational health risks[edit]

Emergency shower and eyewash stations are an essential part of workplace safety for many laboratories and factories. A steady supply of water is necessary in the event of harmful chemical exposure. Many Occupational Health and Safety requirements suggested that emergency showers should be able to pump 75 litres per minute for a minimum of 15 minutes.[50] If these wash stations had been banned or limited, workers who handle highly corrosive chemicals would have been vulnerable.

Vulnerable population[edit]

In homes and orphanages, children were one of the most vulnerable groups that could have suffered from health effects of water scarcity. The feeding, washing, and sterilization of items required to care for children is water intensive.[51] Furthermore, If schools in the Western Cape would have had their taps turned off on "Day Zero", 1.1 million children could be left without water.[52]

Implications and Response of Business[edit]

The drought presented challenges to businesses at different stages and intensities, depending on the nature of the business. Businesses responded depending on a combination of government regulation, managerial judgement and access to capital with which to effect changes.

Implications for Agriculture

The agriculture industry is one of the largest users of water. The wine industry in the Western Cape is a major tourist draw and together with the export fruit industry employs about 340,000 workers and contributes more than 10% to the Province's economy. The wine industry drew 1.5 million tourists in 2017 and together with the export fruit growing sector normally uses about 30% of the water from the sources that also supply Cape Town.[14] Depending on the region, a vineyard needs between 10 and 24 inches of rain to survive. In 2017 local vineyards received on average half their precipitation which resulted in water stress, causing smaller yields. The returns on investment of the local wine and fruit industries are very low although the wine industry produces some of the most popular wines in the world. It was estimated that in 2018 the yield of vineyards would fall by 20% from the 1.4 million tons produced in 2017, and that this would result in a 9% decrease in the volume of wine.

Hydrological poverty[edit]

Hydrological poverty tends to trap people that cannot afford to purchase the food or water necessary for their society to become more affluent. During the drought an analyst estimated that 300,000 jobs would be lost in agriculture and tens of thousands more in the associated services, the hospitality and food sectors.[33] In Cape Town it is illegal to sell water from wells or rivers but people could still profit from the transport and labour associated with the delivery of water from other areas. Those who were using significantly more than the allocated daily water allowance of 50 litres per capita per day were fined between R 500–3000 (US$41–248).[33] Yet this impact further cemented the poverty gap because the fine was relatively small for the wealthy but crippling for less affluent residents.

Government responsibility[edit]

Responsibility for the water supply is shared by local, provincial and national government. In terms of the Water Act of 1998 the national government is the "public trustee" of the nation's water resources to ensure that water is "protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all persons". It states that "the National Government, acting through the Minister, has the power to regulate the use, flow and control of all water in the Republic."[53] This resulted in tension between the DA-led local and provincial government on the one hand, and the ANC-led national government on the other, with the parties initially blaming each other for the water crisis.[14]


There has been a decrease in the tourism sector with a decrease in arrivals, occupancy and feet through attractions in January 2018 when compared to the same period to last year. The accommodation sector has reported a decline in occupancy of 10%.[54]


This water crisis has increased research and investment in alternative water systems, which may ultimately help prevent other cities from falling into the same degree of water scarcity. The combination of climate change and population increase in urban areas means other cities may face similar severe droughts and may need to consider alternative methods of obtaining water.[55]

Response to the Water Crisis[edit]

The City of Cape Town commissioned three small temporary (2 year contracts) desalination plants (two of 7 megalitres per day and one of 2 megalitres per day capacities) and drilled a number of boreholes and a 10 megalitres per day water reuse project will also be constructed. More than 50% reduction in water usage was achieved during the drought from 2015 to 2018.[56]

New water market in Cape Town[edit]

The National Water Act of 1998 is mainly based on surface water resources, mainly rivers, and also on groundwater and does not address alternative water solutions. With the increase in water demand and decrease of rainfall, alternative water sources need to be considered. The Cape Town water crisis inspired the private sector to step-in and provide alternative solutions. This led to an increase of the sale of water in single use plastic containers which came at the expense of the environment due to the production of additional plastic waste. There was also a significant increase in the sale of water tanks for storing roof water and in the development of private boreholes as well as in the provision of household water treatment facilities.

Although various alternative water supply solutions have been implemented by the private sector, the water regulations do not easily allow citizen and local businesses to go off the municipality’s water supply system.[57] To enable the private sector to contribute to augmenting water service delivery, further changes in local by-laws may need to be implemented.[58]

Water Demand Management[edit]

From about 2010 onwards the City's water demand measures successfully reduced the growth in water demand in spite of the significant increase in the population. These measures together with the steeply rising tariffs that has taken place may in part account for the limited savings achieved after the earlier restrictions.

The City's recently published by-laws are aimed at continuing to promote water conservation and demand management and also to provide for the regulation of alternative supplies. The by-laws also specify that water efficient fittings approved by the South African Bureau of Standards should be provided for all new developments and renovations.

During the recent drought the City of Cape Town installed a number of water management devices to restrict excess use. These devices were programmed to shut off automatically if more than 350 litres was consumed by a household during a 24 hour period. It is the City's future intention to provide water metering analytics.


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External links[edit]