The Cape Town water crisis (2018): a lesson not to be forgotten

June 19, 2023

The cover image of this paper was taken from the Burn Media website, in the Meme Burn section, which can be found at the following link: https://memeburn.com/2018/01/cape-town-dams-theewaterskloof/
During the first half of 2018, Cape Town experienced massive water supply problems. Between February and April 2018, the economic capital and third largest city in South Africa was in danger of experiencing a nightmarish situation: a total absence of water both for productive activities and for the basic needs of the population. In those months, the situation was truly desperate; ‘Day Zero’, the date on which the water was expected to run out, was set for 22 April. Unrest of all kinds with dramatic scenarios characterised the great South African metropolis for several weeks. Fortunately, after a peak of widespread despondency during the last days of March, the serious water crisis receded and the worst was averted. A series of spring rains that hit Cape Town made it possible to overcome a truly tragic scenario. However, despite the happy ending, what characterised South Africa’s economic capital during those months deserves to be studied carefully in order to understand what went wrong and to prevent further crises of this magnitude.
Fig. 1 Aerial view of Cape Town
First, some facts. Cape Town is a large urban agglomeration of about four million inhabitants, which has experienced massive population growth in recent years. Since the mid-1990s (2.4 million inhabitants), the population of this metropolis has increased exponentially. This increase has not been accompanied by a parallel growth in the city’s water infrastructure, which has remained essentially the same with slight improvements. This situation is well illustrated by the numbers. While the city’s population has grown by 79% since 1995, the city authorities and the South African government together have made modest changes to the water network, which has in fact only been expanded by 15% (1). Added to these basic circumstances was the severe lack of rainfall that had characterised the entire area for about three years. The years between 2016 and 2018 had been the driest in the country since 1933, i.e. since humidity has been recorded in South Africa. To get a clear idea of how much the lack of rainfall affected the water crisis that hit Cape Town, consider that from 1,100 millimetres of annual rainfall in 2013, it was only 500 millimetres in 2017, i.e. less than half (2).
The 2018 crisis was also favoured by other factors indirectly related to the failure to modernise the water infrastructure and the low rainfall. From an administrative-political point of view, for instance, it is believed that the affair was not well managed. According to South African law, it is the task of the central state to finance and renovate public works, while local governments are responsible for ensuring the proper functioning and enjoyment of individual citizens. This organisational dichotomy is not very functional for an effective management of the res publica, especially in times of crisis when decisions have to be made with a certain speed. If then, as was the case in South Africa, the national and local administrations belong to different political camps, the situation can become untenable, at times dangerous. In this regard, the delays in managing the water crisis were also due to the fact that the Democratic Alliance (AD), a political organisation in opposition to the governing party (African National Congress, ANC), has been administering the city since 2006 and the province since 2009. This may have inevitably complicated the cooperation between the city authorities and the central state. The fact that the water system was not managed by the local authorities but by the national ones, who in the 1990s asked for and obtained the administration of the dams and aqueduct, seems to have had a negative influence on the quality of the measures taken to cope with the crisis.
Fig. 2: Cape Town residents grappling with the 2018 water crisis
Cape Town’s water network and the measures taken to avert the crisis
The water network consists mainly of six large dams located in the mountainous area of the city. Theoretically, they should be able to meet the freshwater needs of the more than four million inhabitants. As is well known, the dams fill with water mainly in winter, from May to August, emptying more in summer, between December and February. The most significant water infrastructure is undoubtedly the Theewaterskloof Dam; built in 1978 and opened in 1980, it has a capacity of 480 million cubic metres of water, about 41% of the water storage capacity available in Cape Town.
Fig. 3: Theewaterskloof dam at full capacity
(October 2013)
Fig. 4: The Theewaterskloof Dam during the water crisis (March 2018) https://www.rainharvest.co.za/2019/04/jojo-tanks-suppliers/
As mentioned earlier, the dry weather and almost complete absence of rainfall that marked the three-year period 2016-2018 stressed the South African metropolis’ not-so-modern water infrastructure exceedingly. To get an idea of the desperate situation in spring 2018, one only has to compare Fig. 3 and Fig. 4.
To be fair, the city authorities desperately tried to remedy the difficult situation by taking even very drastic measures to avert the so-called ‘Day Zero’. It should be noted that, in some respects, the inhabitants of Cape Town did their part by suffering great hardship at the limits of tolerance. According to a British study, water consumption dropped dramatically within three years. It went from 1.2 billion litres consumed annually to 500 million litres at the beginning of 2018, when the estimated water capacity in the city’s dams had fallen below the worrying threshold of 13.5 per cent (3). The restraining measures imposed by the mayor Patricia de Lille, in office from 1 June 2011 to 31 October 2018, hit businesses first. Restaurants adapted to the water shortage by using less water than before and by using (disposable) plates, while hairdressers for several months offered discounts to customers who washed their hair at home. Event organisers, from sports competitions to conferences, equipped themselves to bring their own water bottles. Some activities were also suspended; for example, with several ordinances the mayor forbade filling swimming pools, washing cars and pavements, watering gardens and sports fields.
Undoubtedly suffering the most serious consequences of the restrictive measures was agriculture. Farmers were forced to reduce their water consumption by 40%, and to rely on private water reserves in many cases. As a result, production dropped by about a fifth, with the ominous result of the loss of thousands of jobs not only in the city’s countryside but also throughout the province. Half of the agricultural products exported from South Africa come from the Cape Town district. These are mainly water-intensive crops, such as citrus fruits and grapes.
In spite of these drastic measures, which did not directly affect the individual wellbeing of the inhabitants of Cape Town but, in an extensive manner, related to the consumer-recreational and agricultural spheres, the situation only worsened, due to the lack of rainfall. At that point, given the seriousness of the moment, it was decided to also intervene on an individual level. The municipal authorities instituted an individual limit of 50 litres of water consumed per day, against the world average of 185 litres. This was an extremely strict measure that triggered protests and urban guerrilla warfare in various parts of the metropolis for weeks on end. At the turn of February and March 2018, it was not uncommon to come across bands of desperate people looking for sources from which they could drink or fetch water for domestic purposes.
Fig. 5: Citizens queuing for their daily water supply
Fig. 6: Cape Town’s water shortage 2014-2018
This difficult situation was moreover exacerbated by the inherent characteristics of Cape Town, where signs of apartheid are still evident today. Indeed, the South African metropolis is still deeply unequal socio-economically. Its affluent, central districts, inhabited mainly by whites, are contrasted with the poor, run-down suburbs inhabited by blacks. This has meant that impositions on the individual sphere to cope with the crisis, such as the 60-second shower limitation or morality in the use of sanitary and laundry drains, have been received with some annoyance in the affluent, white areas of the city. In many cases, the wealthier inhabitants have equipped themselves with private cisterns to store water, effectively failing to contribute to the water saving advocated by the mayor Patricia de Lille. In poor neighbourhoods, moreover, there was no lack of revolt against the authorities who had imposed restrictions in areas already subject to water supply difficulties. In short, the multi-ethnic and still class-conscious composition that characterises Cape Town has certainly not had a positive influence on the handling of the crisis.
Overcoming the crisis: a lesson for the world
Although the situation only worsened in both public and private spheres, Cape Town never experienced the dreaded ‘Day Zero’. A series of heavy spring rains, combined with the energy-saving policies that the city authorities had been adopting for months, averted the worst. As time passed, the reservoirs filled up again and the city’s population was gradually able to return to normal life. It took months, however, before the situation was normalised; throughout 2018, in fact, the South African metropolis remained in a state of constant observation. Even today, by virtue of those chaotic and in some respects terrible months, Cape Town still bears the marks of what occurred. The agricultural sector, which in the meantime had lost some 30,000 jobs in both the city and the province, has not fully recovered (4). Especially in the poorer districts, the basin from which many South African farmers used to source cheap labour, there are still gangs of drifters who were previously employed in the countryside around the city. In the wealthier neighbourhoods, it is also very common to still find numerous cisterns outside the houses three years after the crisis. By now, such cisterns are, so to speak, part of the architectural component of entire areas of the city.
There are many reasons why not only insiders but also the public and international organisations should regard the events in Cape Town with the utmost attention. First of all, the fact that a water crisis of this magnitude occurred precisely in South Africa, which is certainly a ‘more structured’ country than others on the continental scene, should give much food for thought. Economically speaking, South Africa is an extremely important country; it is firmly part of the G20, the BRICS and has a gross domestic product of about USD 330 billion annually. This is certainly no small thing, especially if one also refers to the per capita GDP of South Africans, which amounts to $5,400. Compared to Africa’s average GDP per capita, which amounts to $1,900, we can see that South Africa’s economic situation is significantly positive (5). In addition to this, it is an industrialised nation that has invested heavily in large renewable energy plants for years. Four of the ten largest solar and photovoltaic power plants in Africa are in South Africa, or are in the process of being built there. In spite of all this, the Pretoria-based government and the municipal authorities of Cape Town were not able to prevent in time the water crisis that had been looming since 2016, when rainfall had started to become scarce and the levels of the city’s catchment areas had begun to fall. This is because water supply is a very complex issue that requires coordination, planning and timely measures.
The South African case was very useful in some respects, as it provided an insight into how a large-scale water crisis can disrupt the life of a metropolis. It was in fact the first major city that had to deal with the threat of a total shutdown of taps due to lack of water. It is a case, therefore, that will set the standard. The lessons learnt from the Cape Town affair are many. First of all, according to Neil Armitage, a university professor of ‘hydraulic construction’ right in Cape Town, following the events of 2018 we are officially at the end of the era of dams. Savings and the spread of regulations on the proper use of water for domestic purposes will be the main weapons large cities will have to adopt to prevent any supply crises in the near future. Dams, reservoirs, large reservoirs, and anything else, according to the scientist’s thinking, may be useful, but they do not effectively guarantee that the problem will be solved. Not least because in the absence of rainfall, as the South African case shows, one can also build numerous reservoirs but, if one does not have the possibility of filling them, they are of little use.
Secondly, from a political point of view, there should be a unity of purpose on the part of all the components involved. Indeed, among the main reasons that have brought South Africa’s economic capital to the brink of disaster is certainly the government-provincial administrative dichotomy, which, as pointed out earlier, may have had a major negative influence on the management of water infrastructure. Both at the planning stage and especially when a crisis is approaching, it is advisable for all institutional bodies and political parties involved to teleologically adopt the same strategy. Thus, strong political coordination would be desirable, especially in those administrative systems organised on several decision-making levels.
Finally, it is important to have contingency plans that can cope with any problems related to the lack of water supply. In addition to outdated infrastructure and organisational difficulties, what was lacking in Cape Town between February and April 2018 was so to speak ‘contingency’ planning. Indeed, both the city authorities and the government reacted passively to events. No alternative strategies were devised that could avert or lessen the hardship endured by the population. For example, the Pretoria government, which, as mentioned, is responsible for public works, proposed the construction of a desalination plant only belatedly and after the crisis had already begun. Desalination is by no means a panacea but, in some serious circumstances, it can be a viable method of producing desalinated water to make up for the lack of traditional supply. Tsogo Sun Holdings Ltd, South Africa’s largest hotel operator, in February 2018 began construction of a desalination plant to secure its hotels. Tsogo’s CEO, Ravi Nadasen, stated several times during those chaotic weeks that the difficult water situation in Cape Town was no longer to be considered extraordinary, but a ‘new normal’. It was therefore imperative that, by virtue of institutional passivity, private companies with some financial clout also took action to contribute positively in a very difficult context.
During the first half of 2018, Cape Town fell victim to a veritable ‘perfect storm’. Exponential population growth in a short period of time, lack of rainfall, political inactivity and indecision, substandard water infrastructure and lack of an emergency plan formed a deadly combination. Many cities may experience similar situations in the future, especially in some areas of the world where the rapid population growth of metropolises is not always accompanied by adequate urban development plans. Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, by virtue of peculiar socio-political characteristics, could experience similar crises in a few years’ time. Hopefully, the South African events described in this paper can be a valuable lesson on what not to do to avert a water crisis. Keep in mind, in fact, that water supply crises do not happen in a short time or overnight. They are often the result of years of neglect, administrative indecision and bad political choices.

1 https://www.rinnovabili.it/ambiente/crisi-idrica-citta-del-capo/
2 https://www.ilpost.it/2018/05/06/siccita-citta-del-capo/
3 https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/cape-town-water-crisis-day-zero-overflowing-dams/?template=next
4 https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/cape-town-water-crisis-day-zero-overflowing-dams/?template=next
5 This is not the place to go into more detail on the South African economic situation, but it should be borne in mind that, in the face of all positive data, South Africa still experiences strong economic and social inequality. Wealth is largely held by the white population (10%), which has about 60% of the total.

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