View of Cape Town, South Africa, at dusk
Cape Town at Dusk A scenic view of Cape Town, South Africa © Shutterstock

Stories in Africa

Cape Town Faces "Day Zero"

South Africa’s most iconic city is running out of water

Cape Town’s 4 million residents could face dry taps and queues at water collection points after the worst drought in a century has left the city’s supply dams nearly empty. "Day Zero" — the day when residential water supplies run out — was initially predicted to fall mid-April 2018, but strict water rationing measures and citywide informational campaigns have deferred this, much to the relief of Capetonians.

While "Day Zero" might not come in 2018, the very possibility of a modern city running out of water has been a wake-up call for people across the world. What can we do to prevent this from happening again in Cape Town and in other cities globally?

TNC’s Director of South Africa Water Funds Louise Stafford explains what’s happening in Cape Town and how TNC’s innovative water fund model could be transformational.

TNC South Africa Water Funds Director Louise Stafford
Louise Stafford TNC South Africa Water Funds Director outside of Cape Town. © Tate Drucker What is "Day Zero"?

Louise Stafford: "Day Zero" is a term that the city gave to the day that the taps will run dry in the residential areas. This is the day when the dam levels supplying the Greater Cape Town Region are predicted to reach 13 percent capacity. Once they drop below that, it becomes difficult to extract the water and keep the taps running. So what happens then?

Louise: The city will continue supplying water to the informal settlement areas that are home to Cape Town’s poorest residents, as well as the central business district. But residential areas will be cut off, and people living here will have an allocated daily water ration of 25 liters, which they will have to collect water from one of 200 supply points across the city. These locations will also be equipped with washing and refuse management facilities. Why will informal settlements and the central business district stay connected?

Louise: Without water supply, industries and businesses will come to a complete halt, and essential services such as hospitals are at risk of shut down, too. Informal settlements are the highest density areas of Cape Town, where people share communal taps and toilet facilities. Without water, disease could break out and spread rapidly. We don’t say water is life for no reason! But, while the intention is to maintain the water supply to these areas, there is no guarantee it will be available on a 24-hour basis. How long will this last?

Louise: It is difficult to say; experts predict that it may last several months. If the winter rains are on time (they should fall from June – July) dam levels could recover, but in the absence of reliable forecasts we don’t know what to expect. Even if we do get good rains, restrictions will still be in place, and we’ll need several months of monsoon rains to fill the dams. What does it mean for residents to have taps turned off?

Louise: Imagine getting up in the morning and being unable to turn on your tap to make coffee, take a shower, or even flush your toilet. Instead of work, family, or hobbies, your day would be centered on your trip to the nearest communal water point to collect your allocated water ration. Up to 5,000 people are expected at any given time at these points, and the congestion will be enormous. This visit could take hours for some people, which will affect work and school routines, not to mention people’s tempers! Cape Town produces a lot of wine and fruit. What impact is this having on the agricultural sector?

Louise: Already, more than 30,000 people in the agriculture sector have lost their jobs because there’s no water to irrigate the crops. Some farmers are cutting the buds off orchard trees because if they fruit and there’s no water, it could damage them irreparably. This will have a knock-on effect on the next harvest. People from outside Cape Town are donating food for livestock because there’s a shortage of fodder. Why does "Day Zero" keep moving around on the calendar?

Louise: People are abiding to the severe water restrictions currently in place, and so water usage is declining. There have been drastic reductions in the water available for agriculture too, and increased abstraction from the existing aquifers. The more water we save, the longer we have before "Day Zero" comes. How did it get this bad?

Louise: It’s a very complex situation and there are numerous contributing factors. While there has been a decline in rainfall over the past four years, Cape Town’s population has increased by an average of 2.6 percent per year. So water demand is outstripping the supply. In addition, less water is reaching the reservoirs that feed the city because of watershed degradation and invasive plant species. What is TNC doing about the situation?

Louise: We’ve launched the Greater Cape Town Water Fund. This is part of a global effort by TNC for source water protection that includes dozens of cities around the world. Through the Water Fund, TNC and our partners aim to provide nature-based solutions to sustain long-term water supplies, while alleviating poverty and supporting economic growth in the region.

The first activity we are focused on is the removal of thirsty invasive plants, responsible for the loss of billions of liters of water every year. At our pilot project in the Atlantis Aquifer, with funding received from the Coca-Cola Foundation, we’ve employed and trained a team of 14 local women to help us remove these invasive species. Wetland and river restoration activities are soon to follow. Studies have shown that restoring watersheds are more cost effective in securing water supply over the long-term than other methods, such as desalination. How much impact can invasive plant species removal really have on Cape Town’s water supply?

Louise: We are currently studying water losses in the region due to invasive plants, and will have the results in mid-2018. We’re also looking deeper into the comparisons between the different water supply options: watershed restoration, desalination, and groundwater sourcing, for example. How quickly will the benefits of the Water Fund be felt?

Louise: If invasive plants are cleared from the areas directly above the surface water dams, improved run-off will be experienced during the first winter rains. But ultimately, this is about next year, and years to come. The city deserves credit for embracing the water fund strategy and thinking about the future while grappling with an urgent crisis. While right now the world sees Cape Town as the worst-case scenario, we believe that there’s potential to turn that around and be a model for how collaborative efforts between government, NGOs, and the private sector can secure long-term water supplies.