Cape Town, a city known for its stunning natural sites, strong economic standing, and history of racial unrest is now facing what seems to be an insurmountable challenge. As a result of drought, population growth, and climate change, the city’s reservoirs are ailing, causing a tremendous shortage of water. “Day Zero:” the day the local government will be required to shut off all taps for its residents is currently projected as being anywhere from April to June, to mid-July of this year. Water is currently being heavily rationed in the city, one of Africa’s richest, and residents are required to consume no more than 50 litres daily. Many are bracing themselves for what could be a huge environmental and eventually socio-political disaster in one of the most racially divided places on Earth.
Cape Town in Crisis: How did we get here?
Cape Town is the second-largest city in South Africa and is located in a semi-arid region, with most of its citizens relying heavily on rainfall to supply them with enough water. Notably, Cape Town’s famous “Table Mountain” is instrumental in ensuring the metropolis sees enough rainfall each year, this process occurs when the structure traps air coming off of the ocean and catalyses precipitation. Yet, the average rainfall in the city has dropped each year for the last three years, dramatically shrinking its largest water source called the Theewaterskloof Dam as seen in the visuals below:
(Courtesy of the New York Times)
The shrinkage of these natural pools of water combined with a lack of emphasis on creating or finding other water resources has also catapulted Cape Town to the crisis. In 2006, the city’s Democratic Alliance rose to power, which championed numerous sustainability initiatives such as repairing water pipes and introducing increased meter systems in the city. These efforts proved to be extremely successful in conserving already existing water but unfortunately were too myopic, in that the party ignored the calls of numerous scientists about the importance of finding alternative sources that were not dependent on rainfall. Currently, Cape Town is experiencing a “once-in-three-hundred-year” phenomenon, and unfortunately exactly what conservationists have been warning about.
What will happen on “Day Zero?”
Cape Town, one of Africa’s wealthiest, lies in the most unequal country in the entire world in terms of income, putting it at high risk for great civil unrest when “Day Zero” strikes. Cape Town has already deployed 200 water collection points throughout the city, each aimed at serving over 20,000 residents, and according to reports they will only be allowed to extract 25 litres per day when “Day Zero” hits, half of the current consumption limits.
Already, fights have been taking place at these emergency points, resulting in a greater police and even military presence that will be more widespread when “Day Zero” hits. The fighting has reportedly come as a result of citizens trying to steal more than their allotted share from natural springs, a threat that can only rise. Likewise, the local government has also had to deal with unethical business practices, as some water bottle providers are capitalising on scarcity economics by driving up the cost of bottles and other essentials.
The city’s elite and privileged have the ability to garner their own alternative water sources, leaving them unscathed by the changing tides of climate, and many of Cape Town’s richest have already installed private water tanks on their property. For the impoverished citizens who will have to live on mandated minimums, this is not a luxury that they will be able to afford. Quite literally, those who live in decentralized city locations will have an increasingly difficult time gaining water access, putting them in a precarious situation between potentially choosing water access over their jobs, leading to potential civil unrest.
A dangerous trend: Which cities could be next?
The politics of climate have already wedged open important debates in major cities around the world such as Bangalore, Miami and even London who have all faced their share of issues around water supply. Although the challenges in each of the respective cities are unique, the common thread that connects them are issues of water waste, infrastructure, and contamination issues.
In Bangalore, the liberalisation of Indian markets has lead to the city becoming a major technology hub for the country, attracting large foreign investments. However, the infrastructure in the city is unable to handle the load of new and increasing development and has struggled to reform it’s old sewage systems. Similarly to Cape Town, the city has also been struggling with extreme drops in rainfall and a lack of resources exacerbated by a population that has doubled to roughly 10 million in just 17 years.
Currently, in Bangalore, drought has dwindled the current water supply, making water tankers and trucks all the more common in the city. Unfortunately, this has also increased overall corruption in the city as well with independent tankers acting as a de facto “water mafia,” upcharging desperate citizens for the most precious resource on Earth. Eerily, there are very many similarities between Cape Town’s water crisis and a potential crisis that could emerge in Bangalore in the next few years.
With more of the world flocking to big cities and rising income equality, the competition for the world’s resources in the era of Climate Change could potentially devastate the fabric of our societies for decades to come. Unfortunately, Cape Town is going to be the litmus for how politicians and governments will be tasked in handling situations like these, and most importantly an example of how to help the most vulnerable in society in preserving themselves through such crises.