What’s causing Cape Town’s water crisis?

Population growth, drought and climate change threaten the city’s water supply

Photo of dry Berg River
Berg River above the dam in May 2017. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

There are several likely causes of Cape Town’s water shortage. GroundUp spoke to Kevin Winter, a lecturer in Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, who helped us get to the root of the problem (we take sole responsibility for any errors).

This is part two of a GroundUp special series on Cape Town’s water crisis. 

Population growing faster than storage

Since 1995 the city’s population has grown 55%, from about 2.4 million to an expected 4.3 million in 2018. Over the same period dam storage has increased by only 15%.

The Berg River Dam, which began storing water in 2007, has been Cape Town’s only significant addition to water storage infrastructure since 1995. It’s 130,000 megalitre capacity is over 14% of the 898,000 megalitres that can be held in Cape Town’s large dams. Had it not been for good water consumption management by the City, the current crisis could have hit much earlier.

Source: City of Cape Town weekly dam levels 15 May 2017.

Possibly high consumption preceding current drought

Cape Town is in the middle of a drought. The graph below shows the decreased rainfall in the past two years for Theewaterskloof, the dam supplying more than half our water.

Graph constructed using data from National Department of Water and Sanitation

The City would not provide us with historical consumption data. However, officials did provide us with the amount of water treated. Note than in 2015 there was a spike in the amount of water treated. This suggests that consumption went up in that year, coupled with the onset of below average rainfall. However, Winter has cautioned that we can’t draw too much from this graph, because the correlation between water treated and consumed is not clear.

Constructed using data provided by City of Cape Town (Xanthea Limberg)
This graph shows the city’s dam levels from 2000 to 2017. In the mid-2000s there was also a serious drought. Source: City of Cape Town

Climate change due to human-caused global warming

Winter explained that rainfall to the city’s catchment areas is coming later, dropping more erratically, and often missing the catchments altogether. “We have to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is finding its way into the atmosphere and has reached a new high,” he said. “This is a global system, so the bigger systems are beginning to impact us … there is no doubt that pressure and temperature are related. So disturb the temperature, you disturb the pressure and you start to see different systems operating.”

“Weather variability is suggesting two things to us. One is that the drought interval [the period between less than average rainfall years] is closing and that’s massively problematic if you can’t get a couple of good years to bring yourself back up,” Winter said. “[The other is that rainfall is] coming later. … We don’t get a sweep of cold fronts that are here for two or three days and drop the annual rainfall in nice, neat little batches. That’s no longer true.”

What this means is that we shouldn’t see the current water crisis as a temporary phenomenon that will resolve in a year or two. It’s a long-term problem. We will need substantial government intervention to make Cape Town’s water supply sustainable.


Dear Editor

Rain water must be used to flush toilets. All new developments and homes must operate on the same premise. increasing water tariffs is pointless as money cannot buy water.

Dear Editor

This article shows clearly that Cape Town's rulers have been ignoring all the warning signs that a serious water crisis was just around the corner unless drastic action was taken. The obvious remedy with the sea right there was desalination, but nothing has been done about this. And now, when I ask Mayor Patrica de Lille what the City plans to do if the dams run dry, she replies words to the effect "We don't expect that to happen." It's this hoping for the best instead of planning for the worst that looks ominously like having us fighting for a drop at street corner water tankers, even though nobody seems to know where the water will come from.

Dear Editor

Other than electricity supplies, is there anything more serious than a major water crisis for any inhabited area of a country?

Water is vital to keep humans and the whole spectrum of animals, large and small, alive. Also to maintain vegetation, apart from certain plants and trees which can put their roots down the water table to maintain life. Always providing that the water down there is not too contaminated, primarily with salt. But plants are essential to maintaining life, whether they are eaten after being cut from plantations and in many cases cooked or eaten as meat from animals bred for this purpose.

And here we now have the result of an extended drought in the Western Cape, with seemingly no consideration being given by the CT City Council for a situation which specialists at UCT and other academic institutions have been giving warnings for a number of years, as we read in press statements, radio and TV programmes - a predicted fall in vital rain.

It is a great pity that there is still resistance to the fact that modern populations in developed countries predominate in urban areas, where there are commercial and small to large industrial manufacturing enterprises, as opposed to rural agricultural areas. Even President Zuma has been complaining that the majority of people seeking compensation for land stolen from their antecedents in earlier times do not want land back - except maybe enough for a personal plot on which one's home is built - but prefer financial compensation. Does anyone really need to ask the question: where are the small minority of farmers, why do they prefer very large areas to farm? Areas which require trained individuals to run and grow their crops efficiently, with all the necessary equipment for their purposes, and staffed by the relevant small number of people who really do like working on the land. Why is it such a difficult point to understand?

So we have a water crisis, magnified by the large increase in the urban population.

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