Avoiding Day Zero: the Cape Town Water Crisis

By Miles Bolton

A South African Town

Cape Town, South Africa, the country’s capital and one of its most affluent cities is teetering on the brink of aqualess dystopia. The city is projected to run out of water by the summer, thanks to recent water saving measures implemented by the government to cap water use at 13 gallons per resident (vs. the 80 gallons used daily by the average American) and by “naming and shaming” those who were using excessive amounts of water, the Day Zero projection was pushed back from April 12th to August 27th. Of course this development is meager and does little to quell the apocalyptic visions going through the heads of South Africans as even with expected increases in rainfall; South Africa’s water resources are destitute. To put things into perspective, if South Africa were to reach Day Zero it would be the first major modern city to run out of municipal water EVER. Day Zero signifies the date by which the city runs out of water forcing all remaining water reserves to be rerouted to emergency pick up points for rationed usage. Cape Town's government has designed a "water pick-up point system" where an estimated 200 sites were designated as pick up points where each eligible resident can receive 25 liters of water daily. This system has the capacity to serve 20,000 residents daily. 

​Picture thousands of people waiting in line while water is rationed out by armed guards in the heat of summer with colossal shopping malls, restaurants, and boutiques making up the backdrop. This is the potential future of Cape Town if Day Zero isn’t averted. Make no mistake, the conservation of water resources is not just a future crisis for South Africa but for large cities worldwide as excessive water use and climate change threaten our water resources as well as the communities they sustain. 

The current water crisis in Cape Town has been accelerated during the past 3 years due to historically low rainfall that one meteorologist called a “once in 628 years weather event”. However due to a combination of factors predominantly related to South Africa’s climate and agricultural practices, South Africa is a particularly drought prone area of the world that was likely to run into serious water trouble regardless given how climate change has exacerbated it’s environmental vulnerabilities.

The aftermath of climate change induced desertification.


One cannot effectively discuss a nation’s water resources without having an understanding of the area’s climate, geography, and ecology. Those three factors are the determinants of how plentiful or limited water is in a given area. The Orange River Basin is the primary source of water for South Africa but also supplies water to Botswana, Namibia, and Lesotho. The Orange River Basin covers 245,000 square kilometers in South Africa and is fed primarily by the Orange River which flows from the eastern highlands through the Kalahari depression in the west before emptying out into the South Atlantic Ocean, stretching across the entire width of the country. The Orange River passes through mountains, the Kalahari desert, and arid, shrubby grasslands before reaching the western part of country where Cape Town is located. Theewaterskloof Dam is Cape Town’s biggest water feeder site and is situated in a region of the Western Cape that has been threatened by encroaching desertification for over a decade. The dam at the present is sitting at 11.7-12.5% of it's capacity, rendering it unusable for the foreseeable future as dams need to be near full capacity in order to be utilized effectively.

As a brief aside, desertification refers to the phenomenon by which once fertile land gradually transitions into desert due to drought, deforestation, and/or unsustainable agricultural practices. Desertification is a major problem throughout Africa and is being accelerated by Climate Change..naturally.

The Karoo-Namib Shrublands are the primary ecosystem in the Western Cape region of South Africa. This ecosystem is characteristically drought prone, with shallow, sometimes saline soils that are inhabited by drought resistant flora such as shrubs and succulents. The name Karoo is derived from the Khosian word meaning “land of thirst” as there is little to no surface water to be found in these ecosystems. The Karoo-Namid Shrublands share the same ecological traits as the Chaparral biome and is classified as such by the English speaking world. In my last article “Phoenix Ecosystems” I discuss the Chaparral biome to explain California’s susceptibility to fires however they’re also a part of California’s water troubles as well.

Let the ecological connections between California and South Africa sink in. California and South Africa share more commonalities when it comes to water then one may think at first. Los Angeles, like Cape Town, is located in a drought prone chaparral and has long suffered from drought to the point where they need to import their water from the Eastern Sierra's and the Colorado River. California legally siphons up to 1.4 trillion of gallons of water a year from the Colorado River alone, hydrating 18 million Californians. But back to South Africa as a proper run down of Californian water troubles warrants it's own article and shall be discussed in depth in the near future. However, keep California in mind as you read the rest of this article, this is not just a Cape Town issue. 

Cattle Farm located outside Winburg, South Africa.


Unsustainable agricultural practices have played a significant role in quickening the pace of desertification and compromising water security by degrading the soil and removing plant cover, making the soil susceptible to erosion. 60% of the land in South Africa is currently degraded; 80% of South Africa’s land is being used for subsistence farming whereas only 11% of this chosen land is suitable for agriculture.  Soil erosion caused by poor farming practices has degraded water catchment areas therefore diminishing surface water resources (rivers, dams, estuaries)and degrading water quality. Soil erosion also leads to the sedimentation of dams, soil crusting, and soil compaction. The South African mining industry compounds these problems as acid mine drainage from mining sites, induces soil acidification and contaminates ground and surface water sources. Gold mining is one of the chief culprits for this pollution and in tandem with the South African government they have refused to comply with international law in taking sufficient steps to deal with the waste created by these mining operations. Mind you the pollution from these gold mines has been accumulating in South Africa for the past 130 years and serves as a lasting reminder of the environmental impact of colonialism. Another lasting environmental impact from the apartheid era stems from the forced resettlement of 3.5 million Africans in what are now called “communal areas”, this was initially done in order to make room for white colonists. This racially charged resettlement resulted in severe soil erosion and rangeland degradation as livestock numbers grew to 2-4 times over the recommended stocking rates.


Taking all the aforementioned factors into account, without even considering the potential impact South Africa’s governance, it's clear that Cape Town has its work cut out for themselves in striving to find a way to stay hydrated. To my American readers, pay close attention to the water crisis in Cape Town. In the foreseeable future we could find ourselves in a very similar situation in California, Texas, or any other drought prone state if we don’t take necessary steps to improve water security. I don’t have a one size fits all answer for how South Africa, California, or anywhere else could solve their water crises as each case is unique but I will try in future articles regardless to further the discussion and raise awareness on water issues across the globe.

We will be putting out more articles to examine water crises in California, Texas, and other places soon, as the water crises of the World aren't being reported on with enough urgency. These aren't temporary issues that will wash out of your newsfeed in a couple of months, global water crises will remain a existential predicament as climate change, overpopulation, and environmental destruction will continue to compromise global water security. 


1. 2. 3. 4. The new encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2010. 5.Dinwiddie, Robert. Complete atlas of the world. New York: Dorling Kindersley Pub., 2007. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.


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