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Woman doing laundry in the township outside Capetown.
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Water & Sanitation

How Cape Town Went From Water Crisis to Overflowing Dams in Just 2 Years


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Droughts are a serious reality in South Africa. Climate change has caused a decrease in rainfall and an increase in warmer temperatures which have resulted in water scarcity across the country. The United Nations’ Global Goal 13 calls for climate action; while Goal 6 calls for availability of clean water for all. Join the movement by taking action on these issues here.

While Cape Town’s water crisis was declared a national emergency in 2018, today the dams that supply the city with water are overflowing. 

Two years ago, Cape Town faced becoming the first major city in the world to run out of drinkable water as it dealt with serious water scarcity.

Between 2015 and 2018, a decline in rainfall resulted in Cape Town’s worst droughts on record. These droughts saw the city on the brink of Day Zero, the point at which the municipal water supply would be shut off.

Day Zero thankfully never came and the city’s largest supplier of water, the Theewaterskloof Dam, has seen an impressive increase in dam levels; from 11% on March 9, 2018, to 100% on Oct. 2, 2020. 

While recent rainfall has played a large part in this improvement, the city’s management strategies and the public’s water-saving efforts should also be commended. 

From reusing bath and shower water, to enforcing a limit on activities that require large amounts of the resource, Cape Town’s residents and businesses managed to stabilise and improve the dire situation. 

These are some of the measures that were taken to avoid Day Zero: 

Re-allocating water

In the immediate response to the water crisis, the municipality diverted water from the agricultural sector to supply the city. 

Although this was not a sustainable solution as water for agriculture was in short supply, and it also played a role in the loss of over 30,000 jobs in the agricultural sector, it managed to buy the city time to formulate a plan to manage the water it did have a lot better. 

Related Stories Feb. 9, 2018 Photos of Cape Town in Crisis as the City's Water Runs Out

Residents and businesses became waterwise

The World Economic Forum reported on how Cape Town’s residents and businesses had to drastically reduced their water usage. 

They adopted new habits and became resourceful in sourcing for water. At the most extreme point of the crisis, residents were limited to using only 50 litres of water per residence per day — to put that in context, it takes about 10 litres of water to flush a toilet. 

This led to monitoring the flushing of toilets, reusing grey water (which is waste water, except that from toilets), and banning activities that required excessive amounts of water. Pools were no longer allowed to be filled, cars could no longer be washed, and watering the garden became a nightly activity in order to reduce evaporation. 

Increasing the cost of water

According to News24, the city rolled out around 250,000 Water Management Devices (WMD) that set limits for water usage on properties. The devices took the place of traditional water meters and were programmed to shut off a property’s water supply once it had reached the daily limit. 

Households that used high volumes of water and surpassed limits faced heavy fines. The municipality also temporarily increased water tariffs to discourage excessive use of water in each household. 

Related Stories Feb. 21, 2018 Extreme Water Rationing Helps Cape Town Push Back Water Apocalypse

While these financial measures were set in place to manage the problem, they were criticised for unfairly affecting poorer households. According to a 2018 report on the impact of Cape Town’s water management solutions on different households, 64% of the WMD’s were installed in poor communities and not on affluent homes whose water usage would be expected to be excessive. 

South Africa’s water scarcity still persists

Cape Town may have been able to come back from severe water shortages, but there are still parts of South Africa that are struggling with access to water. According to Times Live, dam levels in several parts of the country are continuing to decrease by about 1% each week. 

Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality in the Eastern Cape province recently declared Day Zero and has called on the government to immediately intervene. 

While the Department of Water and Sanitation has committed to supplying the region with water trucks for two months, a bigger budget and a sustainable plan is needed in order to alleviate the problem. 

Meanwhile, the Vaal Dam that supplies Johannesburg and most of the Gauteng province with water, saw it’s levels dip to 36% in September this year compared to 58% during the same period in 2019. However, the government has yet to announce any restrictions for the province.

Related Stories Feb. 9, 2018 Cape Town Isn’t South Africa's Only City With Water Problems