2017 Cape Town water crisis

From ToxicLeaks

Cape Town and its water supply[edit | edit source]

Cape Town, South Africa is home to nearly 4 million people – 6.5 million live in the province – and it is an upscale international tourist destination, innovation hub, and modern technology-driven city with sophisticated systems and citizens. As of June 2017, however, none of that was helping the city to cope with what Mayor Patricia DeLille said is the worst drought in 100 years and “a major shock” to the region. In May 27, the Western Cape was declared a disaster area because of the drought crisis. Even with winter rains, it will take at least three consecutive winters of above-average rainfall to make a real difference to the availability of surface water. That’s critical to Cape Town because, as is the case in many southern African cities, it relies on a series of dams – 44 of them – to supply the region’s water.

The capacity of the dam system in Western Cape is 1870.4 million cubic meters. Because of the severe drought, the average level in the entire system on June 20, 2017, stood at 21 percent. Some dams, including the Gamkapoort and Prinsrevier, were listed at zero. The reality, however, is that the last 10 percent is unusable in the dam system. That means Cape Town measured its remaining water in days. Despite the implementation of crisis water restrictions that limit citizens to less than 100 liters per capita per day – as officials even discourage bathing in favor of wet-cloth cleansing – demand was exceeding targets. Enforcement of the bans included fines and even prison time for repeat violations.

Cape Town officials are climate-savvy, but say there was no way to anticipate the severity of the drought or anticipate that it would span up to three seasons with no practical solutions for millions of people. Gisela Kaiser, the executive director for utility services, said city officials were “waiting on a miracle.”

A three-year drought crisis[edit | edit source]

The rains that typically replenish aquifers and dam seasons come to South Africa in winter, which usually ends in mid-September, and the first half of 2017’s season was not favorable. That’s catastrophic because the drought pattern began in 2015 when the annual rainfall of just 403 millimeters set an all-time low level since record-keeping began in 1904. There was no recovery in 2016; the Western Cape and its southern African neighbors remained in an El Nino weather pattern (ENSO) that drove hot temperatures and dry weather until May. Rainfall at Cape Town in 2017 remained well below median, defying seasonal forecasts that hoped for better. The weather service has suspended those forecasts.

Environmental and health impacts[edit | edit source]

Public health consequences of the prolonged drought were hard to predict because the Cape Town scenario is unprecedented, but they run from the serious concerns over communicable disease and sanitation to less obvious impacts on diet, exercise and lifestyle. Hydration and nutrition compromise are problematic for younger and older populations, and low-income households unable to adapt to or absorb the additional shock. Maize crops and other agricultural products have been hard-hit across southern Africa during the multiyear drought, but South Africa’s appeared to rebound by mid-2017.

The harsh temperatures and dry conditions stress wildlife and vegetation, while increasing the risk of devastating fires. In June 2017, a severe storm front brought disaster rather than precipitation relief when high winds sparked wildfires along the Western Cape coastline between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Some two dozen separate fires destroyed 500 homes and forced at least 7,000 people to evacuate, with the city of Knysna particularly hard hit by flames that fire officials say were burning through a kilometer every 10 minutes. At least five people, including a firefighter, died in the fires. Trade union leaders in Cape Town warned of conflict and civil unrest if water is no longer freely available, even as donations of bottled water destined for Cape Town were diverted to help the Knysna fire victims.

Adapting to a new climate future[edit | edit source]

Experts cautioned Western Cape officials to prepare for a hot, dry future as panic-stricken government leaders realize too late that they are unprepared. Cape Town’s mayor hopes water can be trucked in if the taps run dry, but other officials have said the population density and available water resources make the solution unworkable. On June 17, 2017, the city announced an RFI for businesses and entrepreneurs to bring marketable ideas for temporary solutions. They included reverse osmosis, desalination or related solutions, with a desperate Cape Town hoping to have the first up and running by August 31.

While short-term solutions may yet save Western Cape in time, officials now painfully understand the need for adaptation in the context of climate change. The climate influences are exacerbated by water utilities and planning that failed to keep up with regional population growth for the past two decades. Long-term solutions include waste water capture and treatment and other strategies that move Cape Town away from a dependence on the surface-water dam system that isn’t being refilled by rains.

The city was reviewing its 30-year water plan to give greater consideration to climate change, but millions of Capetonians were more worried about the coming weeks. At a June 23 press conference for key business stakeholders, city officials presented the possibility of water running out in September.