Crisis in Cape Town: What’s happening, and why

Reservoirs in Cape Town and surrounding areas are now less than a quarter full. The largest dam supplying water to the city, the Theewaterskloof Dam, is filled to only 11.3% of its capacity.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Published: February 26, 2018 1:15:00 am
cape town, day zero, south africa water crisis, drought, cape town drought, cape town water crisis, cape town water shortage, world new People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb as fears over the city’s water crisis grow in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Reuters/File)

Why the fears?

Cape Town, and the region it is located in, is suffering its worst-ever drought, which has now gone on for three years. The region is also experiencing a long-term decline in average rainfall. According to Piotr Wolski, Senior Research Officer (Hydro-climatology) in the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, the city’s water supply system can handle two-year droughts, and can even withstand one-in-50- or one-in-100-year events, but this drought is a one-in-300-years event.

What is the situation?

Reservoirs in Cape Town and surrounding areas are now less than a quarter full. The largest dam supplying water to the city, the Theewaterskloof Dam, is filled to only 11.3% of its capacity. The city is fast approaching what the local authorities are calling ‘Day Zero’, when water supply to nearly 75% of the population would have to be cut. After that, water would be rationed at some designated distribution points only. The city has already reduced water supply from about 1,200 million litres per day in 2015 to about 566 million litres per day. Residents of the city do not have access to more than 50 litres of water per person per day.

Is it climate change?

Probably yes, although it is difficult to ascertain the impact of climate change over a small geographical region. The area is prone to fluctuations in rainfall, and climate change does accentuate the variability. According to professor Mark New, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Climate Change at the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, preliminary analysis suggests that three-year cumulative rainfall deficits (as in the current situation) have become five times more likely due to global warming.

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