South Africa has water scarcity

Cape Town water shortage

At the beginning of 2018, the whole world is suddenly looking at Cape Town. This time, however, the reason for the headlines is not the soccer World Cup, booming tourism or the famous penguin colony on Boulders Beach. The water shortage in the metropolis and the imminent “Day Zero” are attracting international attention and turmoil among tourists and locals.

What about a few months after the horror headlines and water war prophecies? Will Cape Town really be the first metropolis in the world to run out of water? And how do other big cities handle dwindling water supplies?

When the world's metropolises run out of water

Global cities like São Paulo, Mexico City or Beijing have had problems similar to Cape Town for many years. The European cities of Rome and London or the city of Miami in the US state of Florida, which is often flooded by rain, are also struggling with a fresh water supply that is too low.

In addition to droughts and natural disasters due to climate change, contaminated water and broken pipe systems are also known worldwide causes of this problem. In developing countries, up to 80% of water is said to be lost through leaks in water pipes.

São Paulo

In São Paulo, the content of the main reservoir for fresh water fell to below 4% in 2015, which corresponds to water consumption of less than 20 days in the metropolis. Here, experts speak of the consequences of the three-year drought, but also, as in Cape Town, of unsuccessful water management by the government. The water is temporarily turned off for half or all of the day in order to reduce consumption. After the water crisis was officially declared over in 2016, the fresh water reserves will fall again to the critical level as in the year before the crisis by the beginning of the current year.


Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is also currently in a water restriction program, which includes switching off the water on one day of the week and reducing water pressure at night for the majority of the population.

Mexico City

The water scarcity in the North American megacity Mexico City, which has been advancing for years, is also well known. The groundwater is pumped from deeper and deeper wells. As a result, the city and its buildings continue to sink. While the water was often turned off a few years ago in the slums on the outskirts, the restrictions are now also affecting the wealthy strata of the population in the city center. With collecting systems for rainwater, the government tries to make the most of the rainy half of the year in order to bridge the rainy half of the year.


In China, too, people have been looking for a solution to the ever-increasing demand for fresh water due to population growth for decades. Beijing's almost 22 million inhabitants have only 100m³ of water available each year, which corresponds to a significant water shortage. In addition, most of the water resources are located in the south of the country, but the agricultural industry has its main locations in the north. China is currently trying to compensate for the uneven water distribution through the world's largest water diversion system. The aim is to supply the agricultural areas and residents in the north with water from the south. However, this is unlikely to be a long-term solution.


It is also becoming increasingly evident that European cities are also struggling with climate change. The city of Rome reduced the water pressure by a third in 2017 in order to counteract the water shortage caused by a drought and the heat wave in the high season. In Italy and other parts of southern Europe, rainfall is currently much rarer and less than in previous decades. In Spain and Portugal, this now causes high harvest losses and forest fires every year. In turn, there is no rainwater to extinguish the fires. In autumn 2017, water from another city had to be transported at the last minute in a small Portuguese town. The population is also urged for days to use tap water as sparingly as possible in order not to endanger the fire extinguishing and thus to prevent a catastrophe.


Even in London, which is supposedly blessed with rain, the pollution of the rivers, bursting water pipes due to frosty winters, periods of low rainfall in summer and the drastically increasing population lead to inevitable water crises.

Water stress, water shortage and the individual water footprint

As a rule, one speaks of water stress when only 1,000 to 1,700m³ of water is available per person per year. From an amount of less than 1,000m³ there is a lack of water.

A survey carried out in 2014 showed that a quarter of the 500 largest cities expect at least “water stress” in the future. By the year 2030, the global demand for water is expected to exceed the available supply by 40%. But even now, many countries can no longer compensate for the abstraction of fresh water with the renewed water resources. The reasons given for this are, in combination, climate change, population growth with a simultaneous doubling of water consumption per capita (on average) and human activity, which upset the water cycle.

However, the increasing water consumption of each individual is not only due to the direct consumption of the water actually used for cooking, cleaning or showering. Virtual water and the water footprint play an equally important role. Based on the same principle as that of the carbon footprint, these values ​​measure the water consumption that is needed to manufacture the products that a person consumes during their life. That ranges from 30 liters of water to make a cup of tea to over 20,000 liters to make a computer or a kilogram of cocoa.

The increasing demand from the mostly richer industrialized countries for exotic products or cheap clothing thus also contributes to global water scarcity.

A look back - Cape Town in the headlines

While Cape Town is still receiving an award for excellent water management in 2015, three years later it is in a crisis that has achieved worldwide popularity. At the turn of the year 2017/18, the daily newspapers from all over the world are filled with sensational reports and horror headlines on the current situation in the city on the Cape of Good Hope.

The "Stern" reported in February on the "black market for water", the government compares the zero hour according to the "New York Times" with catastrophes such as the Second World War or the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York. The Austrian “courier” even fears the threat of anarchy, violent unrest in the townships and the beginning of water wars.

Other online newspapers, on the other hand, suspect a targeted deterrent to the population and a wake-up call for society. The Day zero countdown on the city website and the announcement of military-guarded distribution stations for the population are the signs of this.

The "ARD" informs about an upside-down world in which customers have to take their own water to the hairdresser and, when they get home, recycle it to flush the toilet. Meanwhile, "Zeit Online" is trading the plastic bottle as a new status symbol. But how drastic are the consequences for the local people?

Effects of the water crisis on locals and tourists in Cape Town

As early as 2017, due to the low rainfall in recent years, a crisis situation was emerging in the metropolis. The first water-saving measures are initiated. Citizens should not exceed a daily water consumption of 87 liters, otherwise high fines are threatened. In comparison, water consumption in Germany is over 120 liters per capita.

At the beginning of 2018, also due to the restriction that many have not complied with, Alert level 6 called out. In February, Cape Town residents will have to accept another reduction in their water consumption to 50 liters per person per day. The city can no longer ask citizens to save water, but must force them to do so - with higher fines and steadily rising water prices, say city administration spokesmen.

The water emergency plan of the Disaster Operation Center (DOC) established in January 2018 continues to include restrictions and Prohibitions on swimming pools, car washes, public showers or watering gardens. At the same time, the city recalculates the supposed “Day Zero” based on the current water consumption on a weekly basis. The day on which the dams will only be filled to 13.5% and the "zero hour" approaches is getting closer and closer.

Water shortages in the townships

“Day Zero” has a barely noticeable effect on the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. Many households do not have a water connection and are used to collecting their water from collection points. They often only use 25 liters a day for cooking, hygiene and washing. There is neither a swimming pool nor a flush toilet. Nevertheless, many earn their living washing cars. The car washers accuse the city of driving them into crime by banning the use of city water. They feel they have been treated unfairly, given how much more water has been and is being wasted by the city's better-off residents in recent decades. The residents of the townships are said to only use around 5% of the total water consumption by Cape Town residents.

It is also important to mention that the water crisis only affects Cape Town and the surrounding area, as the city is dependent on the rainwater in its dams due to its location and the extremely increasing population. The city was built on numerous natural springs and rivers, the water of which has flowed into the sea unused for decades, reports a water activist in an interview with "CNN". In the future, attempts will be made to track down the sources and, if possible, tap them again. Other regions of South Africa also get their fresh water from numerous natural sources. The water from the mountains in the Lesotho area, for example, even supplies Johannesburg, which is very far north of it.

"50l a day keeps day zero away" - Cape Town is attracting multimedia attention

The city administration of Cape Town is launching an extensive cross-media campaign to educate the population. This is intended to make residents and visitors aware of the serious problem. Simple, humorous and memorable posters try to make saving water as easy as possible for Cape Town residents and to keep them happy during these difficult times.

Sayings like "50l a day keeps day zero away", "If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down." or "Save like a local" greet locals as well as tourists at airports, restaurants, schools and hotels. Even before landing in Cape Town, pilots point out the difficult situation in the city and sensitize visitors to the cost-cutting measures.

One of the tasks of the employees in the tourism industry is now to encourage guests to use the towels several times, not to take a bath and to use paper napkins instead of cloth napkins. Both the government and committed citizens' groups are trying in a creative way with hashtag campaigns such as #defeatdayzero and # 50litrelife to make a competition out of “the new normal”, the new normal.

They give tips on what you can do with 50 liters of water a day, how you can save even more water and where you should report broken pipes or "wasters". Musicians create extra two-minute shower songs or record existing songs in a shorter version. Public figures known in the media are used as “water ambassadors” and the whole city is adorned with posters. The dissemination of these campaigns via social media has given Cape Town the greatest worldwide attention to date due to a water crisis, although, as described at the beginning, this is already normal in many regions of the world.

The current situation - can “Day Zero” in Cape Town be averted?

All efforts to teach citizens to use water economically seem to be bearing fruit. At the beginning of 2018, the "zero hour" was pushed back further and further.

In addition to the savings made by the population, this is also due to the fact that the farms Xanthea Limberg, the city councilor responsible for water, reported in March that their water supplies in the area had exhausted their water supplies and that no more city water would be available to them.

Initially, the "zero hour" was set in July and later, when the city is blessed with the long-awaited and predicted rains at the beginning of the South African winter, there is even talk of a postponement of "day zero" to the year 2019. At the beginning of the In the month of June, heavy rain fills the dams, so that the water supplies are already above those of the previous year.

Nicky Allsopp from the "South African Environmental Observation Network" (SAEON) warns, however, that one cannot predict the climate for the next few years and that caution is advised: "We cannot assume that the climate is returning to whatever normality is." (News24, June 2nd, 2018).

On June 28, 2018, after a six-week rainy season, the city finally announced in a public announcement: There will be no Day Zero in 2019 either. The Cape Town residents have managed to cut their water consumption by more than half within three years. Nevertheless, their daily water consumption is still above the actual target of 450 million liters. Therefore, all residents are urged to continue the austerity measures in order to secure a long-term supply.

Experts believe that the water crisis in Cape Town will continue as the main problems remain. The population will continue to grow rapidly, while water capacity will only increase slowly. In the past 23 years, Cape Town's population has increased from 2.4 million to 4.3 million people.

In comparison, the city was only able to increase its water capacity by 15%. It is also assumed that it will take three or even four consecutive rainy years for the city to fully recover from the drought. Due to climate change, however, it is more likely that more winters with little rain will come to Cape Town.

The worldwide media horror and doom scenarios have therefore not come true. The consistently negative reporting, however, led to significant losses in tourism and hotel industry, as many potential holidaymakers were waiting first.

“The new normal” - future prospects and plans for Cape Town

Priya Reddy, the spokeswoman for the city administration, said in retrospect in May 2018 that the water crisis in Cape Town had been discussed enormously because it was simply necessary at the time. Years of pleading and convincing would not have helped in advance. The measures would not have been a convenient and attractive solution, but they would have been necessary and actually did not pose a major problem. Otherwise, the consequence would have been the occurrence of “Day Zero”, which we cannot guarantee to avoid until today.

Every resident of Cape Town and the surrounding area was shaken and thought provoked by the times of crisis. Farmers record as a result Crop losses and the wealthy Cape Towns' restrictions on the luxurious lifestyle. Jobs in harvest aid, gardening shops and car washes are being lost. Everyone now seems to realize that this is the time of upheaval and that water shortages will be the new normal. In the future, farms will have to make do with less water, as will hotels and private households. The water shortage cannot be stopped, it can only be alleviated.

In the past few months, the city administration has had a lot Alternatives to solving the water shortage in front. The suggestions range from fairly inexpensive products to measures that require planning well in advance. Simple solutions, such as cleaning agents for the car that work without water, shower installations that pump the water used back into the shower head or the so-called "shade balls" to protect the dams from dirt and evaporation, can already bring about far-reaching improvements.

One of the larger and more costly projects is the Construction and operation of several desalination plants Two systems, at the V&A Waterfront and in Strandfontein, have already been put into operation, and another was opened at Monwabisi Strand at the end of July 2018. However, the water from the desalination plants normally costs at least six to seven times as much as the water from the dams.

As an alternative, attempts will therefore continue to be made to tap the groundwater even more extensively in ongoing projects. The Extraction of groundwater from new sources would be cheaper than any other solution, but is just as dependent on the rainy winter months in the coming years as the fill level of the dams. In the event of a persistent drought, municipal and private boreholes and wells would only lower the water table even further.

Even if the city administration is currently trying to repair the water pipes and is better coordinating the water distribution, this only looks like a drop in the ocean. For example, as in 2007, another dam would have to be opened to compensate for the increase in population and to take advantage of the low rainfall. In the past few years, however, such dams were mainly built by farmers in the surrounding area, who have feared for their livelihood for some time and cannot rely on the city's supply.

“In South Africa, rainwater, streams and rivers belong to the state by law. And he then grants the rights to use and store this water. [...] The farmers around here built a large dam decades ago with good foresight and part of it is now being fed into Cape Town's water supply. We have been doing this for over ten years. Because of the crisis in Cape Town, it's just more than before. "(Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 03/18/2018)

says Stuart Maxwell from the “Groenland Water User Association” on this topic.

The farmers of the association also propose the better use of the available fresh water from springs, streams and rivers and gray water systems, which is mandatory for all households. For such systems or the detection of leaks in water pipes, technological advances and the associated “Internet of Things”, i.e. communication between virtual and physical objects, could also be helpful in the coming decades.

Ideas relating to the extraction of water from the air using special water condensers, fog nets or even the provocation of heavy rainfall by “inoculating” the clouds with table salt (“cloud seeding”) are initially set aside. Instead, another absurd-sounding plan is being pursued, which could take just under a year to implement. A iceberg should from near Gough Island, about 2,700km southwest of Cape Town, to 40km to the coast of the city.

The meltwater from the iceberg is to be pumped out in tankers, then passed on to a huge buoy on the open sea in front of Koeberg and finally to the coast through an underwater pipeline in collecting tanks. Swiss investors would support this project financially - but the green light has not yet been given. The water of the iceberg would likely 20-30% of the annual needs of Cape Town residents cover and would still be cheaper than that which can be obtained from the desalination plants.

What has Cape Town learned and what can other big cities learn?

According to Anna Taylor of the University of Cape Town, Cape Town can draw at least three lessons from the crisis of the past few months:

  1. On the one hand, it is important to do extensive preparatory work. research must be operated, strategies must be drawn up and Preventive measures taken before the crisis occurs. This should be the top priority for Cape Town in the coming year. The resulting results must be made public and their importance made clear. Otherwise, this would be ignored by the residents of the city.
  2. In addition, a working one Cooperation within the leadership and open communication is essential. In this way, uncertainties and mistrust between the rulers of South Africa, as seen at the beginning of the crisis, and within the population, due to the lack of transparency, could be avoided. Cape Town was able to solve this problem very well through publicly accessible information points such as the Water Dashboard or the Water Outlook Report.
  3. As a third point, Taylor notes that changes, large and small, will help resolve the crisis in the long term. The Cape Townspeople should continue to pull togetherinstead of shifting responsibility to one another. The government and large corporations could achieve just as much with costly measures as each individual citizen could achieve by using water sparingly or buying rainwater tanks for the garden.

In 2016, São Paulo felt safe from an overcoming crisis that did not last long. Cape Town should develop strategies against this potential threat. Even if the mass media contributed to and intensified the public dramatization of the water crisis in Cape Town, it cannot be denied that a crisis exists.

The resilience of the government and residents was put to the test. For the time being, this test was passed. It is now to be hoped that other cities will take this as an example and that Cape Town will not repeat the mistakes of its predecessors in the coming years.