Cape Town’s Water Crisis

Chandless and Piantoni

In July 2010 the United Nations General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as a human right. Without clean water it is impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of Health or to be able to break the cycle of poverty. This has been the case for Sub-Saharan Africa for a long time. The United Nations estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa wastes 40 billion hours per year collecting water.

South Africa is now in the spotlight, following Cape Town’s announcement that it will be the world’s first major city to run out of water. Water is expected to reach critical level on April 12, ominously named “Day Zero.” On this day, authorities will shut off all communal taps, forcing people to go to official water points, that will be guarded by security forces, to receive a maximum of 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of water per day. To put this in perspective, Americans on average use between 80 and 100 gallons every day. Hospitals and the most popular tourist areas will be excluded from the water shut-off, and special measures will be taken to ensure that schools have the water they need.

Image: Cape Town Drought

The South African government has issued official recommendations for Cape Town citizens in preparation for “Day 0,” but has also begun work on projects they hope will allow the city to avoid ever reaching that day. Of the seven projects that are underway, six of them are behind schedule, and not a single one is more than 60% complete.  If this continues, not a single one of the much needed projects will be completed when the water is shut off.  South African business men are planning to capitalize on the water shortage by shipping in water from around the country for a high price. If the South African government does not find a way to improve access to water, the current situation in Cape Town may be just a taste of what is to come over the next decade.

How did this happen? Enormous population growth in the last ~20 years, and a terribly long drought that climate experts say “only happens once in a millenium”. Rain in the last three years have been extremely scarce and not enough for the limited number of dams in the country to supply potable water. Additionally, government investment in water supply has been decreasing significantly since the 1980s:

graph of south africa's water investment

Officials announced on February 1st of this year that residents could use a maximum of 13.2 gallons of drinking water per day, in hopes to push “Day Zero” as further as possible and hope rain would increase in the meantime. However, over 60% of residents have not complied with the restrictions, and it is very hard to keep track of the water usage. This is an example of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, where residents act independently and do not care about the common good.

  • How can the world community help South Africa, as well as other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • What lessons can be learned so that this does not happen in the future?
  • What mistakes did the South African government make that led to the current state of crisis?

Sources: Time, NBC News, The Water Project, and BBC News / Africa.

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10 Responses to Cape Town’s Water Crisis

  1. pezzij19 says:

    The situation in South Africa to me is surprising. Considering multiple things, I would not have guessed that South Africa would be the first country for this to happen to, especially
    Cape Town. First, Cape Town is one of the wealthiest cities in Africa. I understand the residents would use more water as a result of this, but I would also assume better infrastructure would be put in place to support this use. Cape Town and SSA is known to be plagued by corruption but from my understanding, SA does not seem to be considerably worse than any other country like say , Zimbabwe. Additionally, Cape Town is on the coast! Of course it is salt water but salinization plants should have been constructed in the past to account for this, and it is surprising they dropped the ball on this issue.

    I would expect somewhere like Jordan or Syria to have the cities to first run out of water. Jordan has almost no water within its borders with most of its biome as desert. Syria is in a similar situation aside from their border to the ocean, but the corruption, civil war, and general lack of centralized government would make me expect that the infastrucure would be either obliterated or seriously underdeveloped.

  2. rietanob18 says:

    While Cape Town is still lacking in development relative to much of the world, other parts of SSA remain behind even South Africa. For example, Cote d’Ivoire — here, most families already have to make significant regular trips to refill water. Unfortunately, those trips are not typically a group effort, and rather are almost always made by women. A recent NPR report estimated that 90% of walking trips to get water in Cote d’Ivoire are made by women. With women, and particularly mothers, taking so much time exhausting themselves and walking to get water, their ability to work and their overall potential is substantially limited. With that in mind, it would be interesting to consider the impact of the water crisis specifically on women. How does limited access to sanitary water impact women specifically? How does it effect marriage, contraception use, etc.? How often are children helping get water? Does this limit their ability to find quality schooling?

  3. ahny19 says:

    The lack of progress on the South African government’s water projects and the anticipation of “Day Zero” is immensely disappointing. Similar to Pezzi, I was surprised to learn that a wealthy and tourist-destination city like Cape Town was experiencing such severe water issues. However, I was more stunned at the discrepancy between water consumption of the average American and the South African. Although the disparity certainly reveals the major gaps in standard of living between wealthy and developing nations, the overconsumption of the U.S. and environmental challenges of drought experienced by South America reminds me of the origins of “sustainable development.” When Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland first popularized the term “sustainable development” at a UN Conference, she did so under the premise that the industrialized world was consuming a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, leading to resource depletion and poverty. As Americans continue to consume a drastically high amount of natural resources while neglecting the environmental externalities of production/consumption, I’m interested to know if the U.S. or other industrialized nations have indirectly contributed to South Africa’s water crisis.

  4. Chris DuPont says:

    This is a very interesting issue Cape Town is now facing. This concern seems pretty unheard of to me, definitely influenced by the fact we live in a developed country where a problem like this would be nearly impossible. It seems as though a large part of the water problem is just pure bad luck, especially with a fairly massive drought occurring in Cape Town. The smart thing to do is call on other developed countries with large amounts of resources to chip in and try to help South Africa. In addition to help from other countries, South Africa as a whole needs to invest far more in water like they used to in the mid-to-late 1900s. I believe the South African government is trying to fix the problem when it’s already too late and if they took preventative steps earlier, Cape Town might not be facing this crisis.

  5. nshimyumukizas18 says:

    I cannot imagine the distress of Capetonians while awaiting for “Day Zero”. Recent news suggests that projection of “Day Zero” has been pushed to May the 11th due to decline in agricultural water use. It was very interesting to look at South African’s government investments in water supply. By looking at the chart, the government spend less money in 2010 on water supply than they did in 1910. This is shocking especially because most projects underway to terminate the water shortage are behind schedule. A number that also caught my eye was that SSA wastes 40 billions hours per year collecting water. I was not sure what it meant as there is only about 8760 hours in year. The blog raises a really important issue of water supply which if taken care of, can improve drastically both health and education especially in rural areas.

  6. cashj18 says:

    This is a serious situation for Cape Town, and a very scary situation for the world to witness. Most people have never thought of one day running out of water, and now that day seems as though it’s on the horizon. South Africa should have seen this coming from fairly far away, and they should have started a very monitored cutback initiative well in advance. Although it is difficult to monitor something like water use, there are steps that they could have taken to ensure that the city as a whole was being more conservative in its use. But now that Cape Town is already past the point of no return, it is time for the world to come together and ensure that a reasonable quality of life can continue without abundant water.

  7. reamest18 says:

    The irony of the situation is that tourist locations will be excluded from the shut-off. That means that Americans, where water is a basic commodity and wasted in vast quantities on the whole, will be able to come into a city of dire need and use as much water as they please, remaining oblivious to the disaster surrounding them. However, including tourist areas would also mean that a large part of South African GDP, tourism, would fall drastically resulting in less investment in water projects across the country.

    Do you feel that the government is making the right decision in excluding tourist areas from the cutoff? Should Americans and other nations planning travel to the country feel guilty about their visit?

  8. John Gaugin-Rosenthal says:

    The world will indefinitely struggle with the allocation of resources (natural and factors of production) and, with an exponentially-increasing global population, these crises will occur with more frequency. Developing nations are more prone to fall victim to these as they have significantly less global influence and are less connected to the international system, making it difficult to gain access to resources elsewhere (either through aid or trade). Furthermore, policy-making in developing nations is somewhat ineffective and inefficient as corruption, conflict, and poverty plague the nations and presents obstacles for successful policy. So, developing nations will, unfortunately, naturally have a much harder time avoiding and recovering from crises. Despite having infrastructure that qualifies it as a developed nation, South Africa has a wide wealth gap (one of the biggest in the world), indicating that it’s people will struggle just as a developing nation would. As aforementioned, the wealthy will be able to steer clear of this crisis, but the majority of the population will suffer tremendously. This is one of many crises to come and, as income inequality becomes prevalent across the world – especially as developing nations become developed – they will have catastrophic effects.

  9. herndono20 says:

    Considering that Cape Town is on track to be the first big city in history to run out of water, it is concerning to see the South African government’s slow progress on their projectss to save the water supply. This is an area where wealthier countries FDI could have a considerable impact. If South Africa allowed foreign countries to help out with the actual projects and the way they are run i think they would see better results. They must find a way to ensure that citizens comply with these restrictions. It does not matter how much foreign aid they receive if not used efficiently. This is a big issue with FDI in general for developing countries. Aid is often redistributed by the target countries government in less effiecient ways than intended. The effectiveness of these restrictions must not rely on the compliance of citizens because they tend to think about themselves before looking at the big picture.

  10. Banks Pflager says:

    Cape Town experiencing this shortage of water is a very interesting thing to happen and it should be looked at and analyzed from developed countries. Cape Town is a large city that has an economy and industries which is different than much of Africa specifically countries outside of South Africa. While there is much poverty in Cape Town, it does not seem plausible that such a big city would suffer from such a shortage of water. this is something that makes us realize as the world as a whole that these issues are something that can affect any place. With factors such as the environment and the lack of clean water present in the world, it is not only developing nations with no strong economy that are susceptible to these issues. While Cape Town is not quite as developed as other places in the world, this is still a crazy event that developed nations should watch and be cautious of because it will become an issue in many other places throughout the world as well.

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