Parched: Why Cape Town is Running Dry

For decades, Cape Town has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Nestled at the very tip of the African continent, Cape Town is home to a pleasant, Mediterranean climate and an enviable coast that skirts the Atlantic. It boasts remarkable socio-economic development relative to the rest of Africa, contributes around 10% of the national GDP, and has a steadily growing economy that is dominated by the rise of financial and manufacturing goods and services. For those who did not look too closely, Cape Town was South Africa’s crown jewel, an anomaly in a continent riddled with poverty and conflict. Yet, in January 2018, the Cape Town government declared that the city would approach Day Zero—the day all municipal water supplies would be cut off due to an acute water shortage—in mere months.

Peyton Ayers

Peyton Ayers

Cape Town’s water crisis instantly catapulted onto the international stage, and its government and people have since become the subject of intense global scrutiny. While climate change might be the most obvious cause of the crisis, a closer look reveals a government plagued by partisan politics, a society entrenched with inequality, and a bureaucratic system plagued with inefficiency-- all of which have exacerbated a disastrously mismanaged civil crisis. Although the government recently postponed Day Zero to 2019, the situation in Cape Town remains dire. As important industries and citizens face debilitating cutbacks on water, the question arises: Who is to blame? While fingers point at local and national governments, the oppositional parties governing South Africa are playing their own blame game, and the loser stands to potentially forfeit not just national credit, but also the 2019 elections.


The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s national governing party, governs all of the nation’s provinces except one. The Western Cape, the province where  Cape Town is located, is governed by the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA). Having won the Western Cape with a high margin in 2016, it is extremely probable that the party is set on expanding its power in 2019. From the ANC’s perspective, one way to effectively discredit the DA would be to put them at the center of a debilitating crisis, such as the one currently underway in Cape Town. As the province’s citizens increasingly blame the government for failing to predict and prepare for the crisis, the likelihood that the DA will be able to substantially increase its voter share in the Western Cape and in other provinces in 2019 has fallen.

The DA is already facing heavy criticism from the national government and local organizations about its mismanagement of the crisis. In a detailed defense of its efforts to prepare for the crisis, the DA argued that a combination of factors—mainly a consistent lack of funding, unwilling cooperation from the national government, and insubstantial efforts from civilians—is to blame. It is unsurprising that the DA attributes part of the cause to financial constraints; the Western Cape Province has received less than half of the requested seven million dollars for disaster relief, a not altogether unanticipated consequence of the infamously corrupt South African government being strapped for cash in general. Where the DA must be held accountable, however, is in how it decided to spend what little money it did receive.

The first time the Water Research Commission predicted Cape Town would run dry was in 1990. As a result of rapid urbanization and population growth, the demand for water skyrocketed. Consumption far outpaced the rate at which rainfall could replenish water, even given normal rainfall patterns. Since then, Cape Town has faced multiple periods of severe water shortages, most notably in the early 2000s. In 2007, the city government approved and implemented a 10-year water demand management strategy. Its primary goals were to reduce water loss, curb demand growth, and increase efficiency of current water management systems.

In 2009, the National Department of Water and Environmental Affairs informed the Western Cape government that despite the construction of the Berg River Dam, the Western Cape would run into water shortages by 2012 unless sufficient “demand management controls” were put into effect. These controls primarily relied on a public agreement to start using less water. Given that the DA was informed of this report, the lack of public awareness they raised is alarming. Civilians were made to seriously implement conservation methods only in 2017, when the reality of the drought could not be avoided. Even then, pecuniary penalties were enforced in 2018, only after the government declared an impending Day Zero. Much of what the DA attributes to civilian negligence of rules, therefore, can be chalked up to the party’s own delay in implementing these rules. Financing enforced, sustainable water conservation projects, and awareness campaigns over a period of years could have better prepared the population for such a sensitive crisis.

This approach exemplified the fundamental, willful misunderstanding of the crisis on the part of local and national governments, which ultimately undermined the success of the program. Most of the water conservation measures that national and city governments sought to enact focused on reducing water pressure, fixing piping leakages (that often account for over 15% of lost water), installing desalination plants, and increasing the capacity of dams. National reports claimed this program was largely successful, noting a marked increase in water savings. These solutions may have helped curtail the magnitude of the current crisis, but they treated merely the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself.

At the peak of the 2018 crisis, water levels in the Western Cape dams were dropping at a rate of one percent every day, with little replenishment. Cape Town currently receives 99 percent of its water from dams that rely on rainfall despite facing increasingly erratic, climate-change driven rainfall patterns. Over the past four years, the overall water levels dropped to a fourth of the dams’ full capacities. An oncoming drought, therefore, was hardly news to South Africa. In spite of this, most of the current solutions presented by the DA are predicated on the largely unchanging assumption that the primary source of water for the Western Cape province is rainwater. Once rain fills the dams, the DA’s solution focuses on more efficient collection and transportation of water to mitigate the effects of scantier rainfall. Desalination was supposed to tackle the remaining fallout; however, the glaring caveat to the DA’s efforts of the last decade is what happens when severe drought strikes.


The Western Cape government and the national government should have instead implemented long-term water supply projects that provide provinces in South Africa with alternative sources of water. The construction of such sustainable infrastructure is the responsibility of the Department of Water and Sanitation, a body of the national government that has failed astronomically at its job. Rather than focusing on sustainable, alternative water sources, the Department focused heavily on desalination, an expensive and largely energy-inefficient, stop-gap measure. Sustainable agriculture practices, like micro-irrigation and organic farming, are also solutions worth investing in that have gone largely ignored.

Planning for a water crisis in the long term necessarily involves economic and social shifts far greater in magnitude than the DA government is currently enforcing. Civilian use accounts for the largest share of water consumption in Cape Town, followed by agricultural use, which accounts for roughly a third of the city’s use and 80 to 90 percent of the province’s water supplies. Due to pressure from the government, farmers have cut back on water used for irrigation by 60 percent. Wine and citrus fruit exports, which account for a majority of Cape Town’s thriving foreign trade, are bound to be adversely affected. In 2016, Cape Town exported 113 million gallons of wine to Europe and the US. The restrictions on water consumption will not only strangle output, but also drive up the price of exports internationally, encouraging foreign importers to look elsewhere for their goods.


Similarly, food prices within the nation are projected to rise. This will affect middle and low-income citizens, who are already facing pressure from the government to cut back on water consumption. DA leadership asserts that civilians have been flagrantly violating the 23 gallon/day limit and thereby accelerating the rate at which Cape Town is losing water. To put this into perspective, Americans on average use about 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. Asking civilians to make such drastic cuts to their daily water consumption is asking them to make significant lifestyle changes for which they have little to no time to prepare. To make matters worse, the population is not bearing the brunt of cutbacks on water equally.

Inequality in Cape Town today reflects the city’s colonial past. Some parts of the city, usually predominantly white, boast enviable levels of development similar to those of the US and Europe. Other parts can be considered ‘developing’ at best: devastating poverty, cheap infrastructure, and limited access to public goods and services plague the city. Enemies of the DA accuse it of perpetuating ‘economic apartheid,’ an allegation that springs from the DA sanctioning the construction of unsustainable development projects in rich, white-populated areas that consume a grossly disproportionate amount of the city’s water supplies. For all the DA’s bellicose rhetoric against the various actors exacerbating the crisis, some see it as having deliberately done little to cut supplies to such large, water-consuming projects, primarily in order to maintain its alliances.


Instead, the government’s creation of military checkpoints for water collection targets consumers from the wrong socioeconomic strata. The lower-middle and lower classes currently face the most severe consequences of the crisis in terms of water restrictions and a lack of protection from rising food prices. Under such circumstances, the DA’s allegations of consumers irreverently flouting rules have understandably faced a lot of public backlash. Most of these people come from poor areas where they have been facing restricted access to water for years and are practiced in frugality with this precious resource. Those with unrestricted access to water must be the focus of the DA’s conservation campaigns and penalties. As South African columnist Suné Payne puts it, “give the Big Spenders in the ‘burbs a 25-litre water bucket…. Maybe then Day Zero won’t happen.”

There are several possibilities for the delay in implementing more stringent policies. Cape Town is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, so spreading awareness about an impending water crisis could damage that sector of the economy. A far more concerning reason is the differing political agendas of the national and provincial governments. Public awareness of a looming crisis would affect not only tourism, but the DA’s reputation within the province and the country as well. The DA has had to juggle a heavily restrictive budget, an uncooperative national government, and a generally slow bureaucratic system that plagues many third-world democracies. It is possible that the provincial government anticipated a highly-impeded road to long-term disaster management. In such a case, publicizing a problem they knew they could not solve in time would be political suicide. A more reasonable trade-off would involve working to mitigate the problem behind the scenes until the crisis hits and then exercising damage control. After all, a well-managed crisis will always reflect better than a predicted and then mismanaged one.

How, then, have the politics played out since the advent of this crisis? For some, it has proved more of an opportunity than a liability. Such is the case for Mmusi Maimane, the incumbent leader of the DA, and the face leading the party’s charge against the water crisis. In January, Maimane addressed the national government about its lack of responsibility in dealing with the crisis. Many have been impressed with the resistance posed by Maimane and the local and provincial governments, lead by Western Cape Premier (and former leader of the DA) Helen Zille. Mayor Patricia De Lille has been stripped of responsibility concerning the crisis and Maimane is now in charge of the government task force assigned to deal with the issue at hand. Maimane’s new and aggressive #DefeatDayZero campaign has indicating to citizens that the DA is taking concrete steps toward solving the crisis.

Maimane has a lot riding on his shoulders, but if he plays his cards right, this crisis could be the key to consolidating a powerful position within the Western Cape’s government as well as within the DA. Constitutionally, there exists a clear delineation of duties between the local, provincial, and national governments that may be contravened by higher-level organs in specific circumstances, such as when a municipal government fails to provide basic facilities according to national law. As a Member of Parliament, Maimane should ideally not be leading the government task force on the crisis. These constitutional restrictions were  put in place to avoid situations exactly like this one, in which members of government are functioning through party alliances and structures over government ones.

Marius Pieterse, a law professor at the University of Witwatersrand, argues that “When party structures become the most efficient way to solve local government problems, shadow governments are created.” It then “becomes easier for internal party politics to infiltrate city affairs” and “also creates opportunities for corruption.” By circumventing government structure and officials, Maimane has, intentionally or not, further undermined the perceived independence of governing institutions. As the united front between Maimane and Zille rises to the occasion, it will be the DA, an individual party, that receives credit, which detracts  from people’s faith in intra-governmental bodies and the governance system as a whole. It is not inconceivable to see, then, how the balance of power between the DA and the ANC might change over the rest of the year, inevitably influencing the 2019 elections.

Regardless of how Maimane and the DA’s actions are interpreted constitutionally, the creation of some sort of shadow governance is one of the many pertinent and concerning consequences of the Cape Town water crisis. Deepening partisan politics in the current situation might sway the public’s favour one way or another, but it does nothing in the way of ensuring that various national and local bodies cooperate to prevent such a crisis from arising again. Ideally, the united front should be one between the national, provincial, and local government. Such cooperation would not only promote the legitimacy of the already discredited governance system but also open and streamline channels of communication between various governmental bodies so that they may efficiently and cohesively deal with the current crisis and implement sustainable solutions for future droughts.

Day Zero threatens more cities than just Cape Town. The Centre for Environment and Science think tank in New Delhi lists other metropolitan cities on the brink of Day Zero, including Beijing, Karachi, Istanbul and Bengaluru. Most of these share similarities with Cape Town: increasing urbanization, heightened dependence on rainfall for water, and sluggish governments that are simply too slow in responding to the accelerating pace of climate change. Unfortunately, the reality of climate change is irrefutable. If there is anything to take away from Cape Town, it is that political parties, governments, and citizens must first publicly acknowledge the threat they face before working together to implement sustainable practices.