Cape Town is running out of water -- I visited and saw what the financial problems of 'Day Zero' look like on the ground

Business InsiderRunning out of water can be costly.
  • Cape Town, South Africa, is experiencing a massive drought, preparing for “Day Zero,” when the city’s water supply is depleted.
  • Residents are only allowed to use 50 litres of water a day, meaning toilets go unflushed, showers are under three minutes long, and agriculture is suffering.
  • I visited Cape Town, and saw how the drought is having significant societal consequences, including a weakened economy and rising inequality.

In South Africa, a tale of two cities dominates a society burdened by massive inequality, and a water crisis is driving the wedge further.

I visited Cape Town for two weeks in May 2017 in the midst of a drastic water shortage, and saw how the city of nearly 4 million is on the cusp of becoming the first modern metropolis to run out of the natural resource.

Environmental conditions have threatened Cape Town and sent millions into a panic. Clean water may have been taken away from people in Cape Town, but many poor blacks have never even had that human right.

In 2010, the United Nations “recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.”

While South Africa was one of the BRICS nations of emerging economies, the country has struggled to recover from the global financial crisis of a decade ago.Unemployment is 27% and the per capita income sits at $US13,400. These numbers also hide the major issue of economic inequality in South Africa.

“Inequity plays out in water very obviously, and what we’re seeing in Cape Town risks becoming an example of that,” said Giulio Boccaletti, the Nature Conservancy’s global managing director.

One reason that water is scarce is because of massive population growth, nearly double what it was 30 years ago. Residents talk about people moving from rural to urban areas, making resources in the cities scarce. Immigration – especially from other African nations – is also viewed as a large factor, and contributes to xenophobic attitudes, dispelling the myth of a united Africa.

The water problem is not isolated to Cape Town. The US intelligence community published a report that predicted global water requirements will exceed supply by 40% by 2030.

Here’s what Cape Town’s water crisis looks like on the ground:


Cape Town, South Africa, is poised to become the first major city to run out of water. The coastal city had originally scheduled “Day Zero” — the day in which all water supply would be depleted — for April, but a decrease in usage and a successful increase of the supply has pushed the event back to 2019.

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Source: City of Cape Town


Residents are limited to 50 litres (about 13 gallons) a day, and the city even offers a guideline on how to manage the allotment. For comparison, each American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day on average.

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Sources: USGS, Government of Cape Town


The World Bank estimates that South Africa has the largest Gini coefficient, meaning it has the worst economic equality in the world. And the water shortage is increasing the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

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Source: The World Bank


Cape Town relies on six reservoirs for the majority of its water, but depleted levels tell a story of the drought. The largest reservoir was operating at 13% capacity for a period of time.

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Source: The Verge


Due to three straight years of scant amounts of rainfall, the dam levels are low. The probability of Cape Town naturally experiencing that little rainfall is one in hundreds of years.

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Source: Climate Science Analysis Group


South Africa is going through a tough moment politically, as well. Jacob Zuma recently resigned the presidency and white farmers are worried the government is going to take their land.

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Source: ABC Australia


Some households are finding solutions to the water shortage, but price can prevent Capetonians from doing so. Boreholes to tap into aquifers cost $US6,000 and machines that turn moisture into drinking water cost $US2,000. Some are going that route, but the price is prohibitive for many.

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Source: Washington Post


This sign at the hostel we stayed at reminded guests to be conscientious of their water consumption. In the hostel and around the city, signs above toilets read “If it is yellow, let it mellow.” Showers were capped at two and a half minutes. Empty buckets sat in the shower collecting run-off water that would be reused.

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Source: Business Insider


Most years, groups to Cape Town drink tap water, but we were instructed to purchase three-gallon water bottles. Between the 12 of us, we went through about five big bottles per day. The average American family uses 300 gallons of water a day.

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Source: EPA


The World Health Organisation links a lack of safe drinking water to certain diseases and recommends better access and hygiene to make people safer. There are no sinks to wash your hands in the townships. In some public areas, there was no hand soap, and people left the bathroom without giving a thought to washing their hands.

Business InsiderAt one school I visited, there were several sinks in the bathroom but none of them had running water.

Source: WHO


In 2015, 69% of South Africans had access to safely managed drinking water sources, just above the global average and the highest percentage in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Source: WHO


This flower is from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, where water is not provided by the city and they use water for irrigation from a 110 megaliter dam. The botanical gardens has policies in place to limit water usage, but many of the rare plants there are at risk.

Business InsiderThe Cape Floral Region is a UNESCO World Heritage protected area that contains 20% of the entire continent’s flora. But many of the unique plants there are endangered and the Cape’s biodiversity is at risk.

Source: Kirstenbosch, UNESCO


This mini-reservoir beneath a tree in Kirstenbosch is one of the many reminders of water’s importance in Cape Town. The city has won awards for its environmental work and water conservation, but still ended up in drought despite, or possibly because of, the protections.

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Source: C40


The city’s efforts to increase water supply by tapping into aquifers is damaging the ecosystem and putting rare species in danger.

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Source: Yale Environment 360


This garden was on the campus of a rural school that produces its own vegetables to save on food costs. South Africa is self-sufficient in terms of crops and is a net food exporter. Yet rural farmers have had their water supply from the city’s six dams cut by as much as 87%.

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Sources: WWF, Yale Environment 360


Cape Town is also home to numerous vineyards and wineries, such as Constantia in the Stellenbosch region, seen below. South Africa is the eighth largest wine producing country, but the drought has caused a drop in production of 20%.

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Source: OIV,Sunday Express


Townships, housing areas located outside of city proper that were set up by the Apartheid government to house blacks, are still home to people on the lowest economic rung. They are often crowded, dirty, and lack more than a communal tap for water.

Business InsiderWomen do laundry in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg.

Source: The Guardian


In the townships, access to safe drinking water is basically non-existent. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is extremely prevalent, as are beer and spirits. Alcoholism is a problem that transcends racial or economic boundaries in South Africa, afflicting poor blacks in the townships as well as rich whites.

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Sources: South African Medical Journal,WHO


With no indoor plumbing, people who live in the townships go to the bathroom in communal portable toilets. Women and children are usually scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, for fear of sexual assault and violence.

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Source: Yale


Longtime residents of Cape Town blame climate change, citing weather patterns they have never seen before. The city was once known for its rainfalls, but precipitation has been precipitously declining. Unprecedented floods have been devastating Nigeria, Kenya, and other African nations with long-standing droughts, too.

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Sources: Quartz, News24


Despite being surrounded by water, Cape Town is dangerously low on the vital resource.

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Source: USA Today


It doesn’t look like the drought’s exacerbation of the city’s inequalities will end anytime soon.

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Source: Business Insider

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