At the height of summer in 2018, Cape Town was reeling from an environmental shock, the scale of which no one here had seen in over a century. A three-year drought, which even seasoned climatologists hadn’t seen coming, broke records going back more than a hundred years. The drought was counted as a one-in-300-year climate event and newspaper headlines around the world warned that Cape Town might become one of the first cities globally to have its municipal dams run empty.
City2 managers started using the term ‘Day Zero’ to refer to the first phase of the steps it would take, should emergency water rationing kick in. If dam levels ran down to the last 13.5 percent, utility managers would shut off water to homes in the suburbs and to businesses outside of the priority city centre area. Families would have to collect a ration of 25L of water per person, per day, from 200 collection points around the city. The police and military were told that they would need to be on standby to deal with civil unrest.
In the end, Day Zero never arrived. But the imminent threat of such drastic measures showed how politically and economically unstable a city can become if political infighting, bureaucratic management challenges, infrastructure failures and delays, and day-to-day development pres-sures collide with an environmental or climate shock such as a drought of this magnitude.
Cape Town may have narrowly avoided Day Zero this time around, but its spectre neverthe-less remains. Human-caused climate change will increase the likelihood of extreme droughts happening in future, in tandem with a city’s growing economy and population putting more pressure on its dwindling water resources.
No one saw this drought coming. It is only with hindsight that weather watchers can pin a start-date to the event: June 2015. Between then and June 2018, the rainfall varied between 50 and 70 percent of the long-term average, according to senior researcher Piotr Wolski of the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town, with many rainfall figures dropping to the lowest since written records began in the 1880s.
Cape Town draws its water from the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS), almost all of which is stored in a few main reservoirs, including the Theewaterskloof, Steenbras, Berg River, Voëlvlei, and Wemmershoek Dams. Together, they hold about 18 months’ supply of water for farming and urban needs – 900 million m3 of water, in all. The City of Cape Town uses the lion’s share of this, about 58 percent. Smaller towns take about 6 percent. Agriculture gets 26 percent of that. About 10 percent goes back up into the air as evaporation or is lost through things like infrastructure failure in the bulk water system, such as leaks.
Cape Town is a city of just over 4 million people, and a breakdown of who uses the most water shows starkly the inequality that still bedevils the service delivery here: those living in formal housing use two-thirds (66 percent) of the city’s water allocation, while those living in informal settlements only draw 4 percent of this shared resource. With 14 percent of people living in informal homes, and ever-growing numbers of those setting up homes in backyard makeshift wooden wendy-houses and iron sheet shacks, there is a backlog in terms of the urgent need for water and sanitation services.
On top of that, about a third of the city’s residents, 1.5 million people, can’t afford to pay for water, and many of them lean heavily on the state’s subsidised water services. If a person registers as ‘indigent’ – crudely, labelling families as poor – they get a free monthly quota, but this is fraught with its own problems. There are also another 180 000 households in informal settlements who don’t have running water in their home, and collect free water from public standpipes.
In 2014, the city’s dams were full. By early summer, in November 2015, water levels were down to 71 percent. A year later, they were down to 60 percent. By the start of the summer of 2017, they were down to just 38 percent.
By January 2018, it looked as though there was only three months’ supply of water left. That’s when the countdown to Day Zero began.
This announcement sent shockwaves throughout the city. There was panic, finger-pointing, and accusations that politicians were grandstanding to manage their reputations. But this crisis wasn’t just an issue of city-level water management by utility departments and technicians. Many of the responses to the water shortages fell beyond the scope or jurisdiction of the city’s water utility management structures.
Who was responsible for the crisis? Was it the national government failing in its constitutional mandate to build and maintain bulk water infrastructure in the province? Was this a way that the ANC government could sabotage the political ambitions of its rival and main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which held power in the Western Cape Province and in the City of Cape Town? Was the crisis the fault of the City, which critics said had failed to implement tighter water restrictions in time? Was it the fault of a careless or greedy wealthy residential class, who weren’t heeding the call to work together as a city towards a common good, by watering their lawns or filling their pools at the possible cost of everyone not having water to flush their toilets or drink? Was it the fault of the City, which had seen the climate change scenarios from scientists who warned that droughts might intensify here, but hadn’t planned for it? But who could have foreseen that this particular drought would stretch into its third year and become the worst drought in the city’s recorded history?
By pulling into clear focus the divide between the city’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, it reminded everyone that many Capetonians live in a perpetual state of Day Zero. Thousands of people need to collect water from standpipes outside of their homes every day, and share often run-down communal toilets and porta-loos.
This divide doesn’t only refer to those who are plugged into the water grid and can afford to buy more water than they need, and those who aren’t and cannot. It also relates to whose voices are heard, be it in the local media, or through political platforms.
By pulling into clear focus the divide between the city’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, the drought reminded everyone that many Capetonians live in a perpetual state of Day Zero.
Thousands of people need to collect water from standpipes outside of their homes every day, and share often run-down communal toilets and porta-loos.
Many wealthier residents panicked at the idea of having to queue at a standpipe for a meagre ration of 25L of water per person, per day. But many of these families were also able to insulate themselves from the uncertainty of a collapsing municipal grid by putting in water storage tanks, grey-water systems, or sinking boreholes.
Meanwhile, just 25km from the plush water-irrigated lawns of suburbia, families in informal settlements still wait for the ‘luxury’ of clean running water in their homes, with no clear end in sight to this state of affairs. Some families in these communities started to worry that they’d now have to compete with middle-class Capetonians who might drive into their neighbourhoods to fill up their water containers.
Would tensions across the city really run so high that people might turn on one another? Would the military and police need to intervene? Or would people pull together, and help each other through it?
Everyone talks about the ‘new normal’ these days, where environmental shocks like this drought are expected to become more common. Cape Town’s water planning is based on historic rainfall and water use records, and projections of the likely water use increase as the population and economy swell. But how does a city adapt its planning when rainfall trends change as the region’s climate becomes warmer and possibly drier, and definitely less predictable, because of human-caused global warming?
In the calm that has returned following the arrival of good rains in the winter of 2018, climate scientists at the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) and the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) from the University of Cape Town along with Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University have calculated that human-caused climate change made this drought approximately three times for likely to occur. The message from their analysis is clear: this kind of climate change risk is real and all future city planning needs to be done with this kind of heightened uncertainty in mind. The residents of a city need to adjust their water use permanently, too, so that it becomes a way of life.