What California can learn from the current Cape Town freshwater crisis

Isabella Schreiber/Staff

When typing “how many days until” in Google search, some of the the most popular search items that follow are Christmas, summer and Halloween. However, for people in Cape Town, the second-largest city in South Africa, the countdown refers to an environmental tragedy. Contrary to those who are excitedly counting down the days until they can get their next Christmas present or prepare a hilarious costume for Halloween, the almost 4 million residents of the Cape Town metropolitan area are counting down to what Western Cape Premier Helen Zille projects could be the worst urban catastrophe since 9/11. According to CNN, day zero of the countdown means for Capetonians that their taps have hit such a low water capacity that the city will be forced to close most faucets and start an extreme rationing strategy. Recently, officials have pushed day zero from April 12, 2018, to sometime in early 2019. If day zero hits Cape Town, it would be the first time that a modern city would literally run dry.

This issue is not only hard to imagine but also extremely sad to see. Recent images of Cape Town’s biggest dam, Theewaterskloof Dam, which provided half of the city’s water, resemble a sci-fi movie of a very dried planet far away from our Earth. Ironically, we live on a planet with a surface that is covered mainly by water, but where most of it is not drinkable to humans. Although this emerging crisis might be news for us, for Cape Town this issue represents the tipping point of three years of drought. In 1990, a headline in Cape Times, a local newspaper, warned of the city running dry in 17 years. Now, decades later, this prediction is becoming a reality. Despite the earlier warning, Cape Town locals and leaders were not prepared to face this extreme situation.

Furthermore, minor practical regulations for water consumption were not enough to avoid this crisis. Early this year, Patricia de Lille, Cape Town’s mayor, stated that people will not voluntarily stop wasting water; therefore, they must be forced to. The mayor’s strategy was to impose what she called a “punitive tariff” for those residents using more than 6,000 liters monthly. In order to achieve a visible change, other regulations such as 90-second showers, grey water used to flush the toilets and a maximum of 50 liters per day per person have been implemented in the city.

However, this catastrophe and the fear of risking important industries such as tourism, which represents $35 billion of South Africa’s yearly economic output, and agriculture, is pushing some to take desperate actions, such as drilling into the ground to get groundwater or using desalination plants, neither of which are environmentally friendly. Other desperate measures include daily travel over long distances to the springs to get the maximum of 50 liters of water per family unit, stocking up water and also water trafficking. Just these last measures represent opportunities for health outbreaks that can worsen Cape Town’s already alarming situation.

What California can learn

According to National Geographic, this critical issue in Cape Town and many other regions in South Africa is the result of many interrelated factors such as unexpected population growth, a record drought exacerbated by climate change and the agricultural practices in and around the city. Agricultural use accounted for more than 50 percent of the city’s water from the dams in the Western Cape Water Supply System, the main water source for Cape Town and surrounding communities. Does this scenario look similar to California’s current water issues?

Much like South Africa, California experienced its most extreme drought in recent history, and according to the California State Water Resources Control Board, Californians are not saving enough water to prevent that from happening again. But what can Californians do?

Well, first of all, let’s visualize day zero as a real possibility that can be only prevented with our active involvement. Then, let’s check our own practices. By measuring and rationing water usage, Capetonians set a record, reducing their water consumption by half during the past three years. We California residents can achieve this number by consciously changing simple behaviors such as reducing shower time, recycling water and avoiding unnecessary practices such as daily grass irrigation or weekly car washes.

We can also use our power as consumers to demand better use of water from the agriculture, processed food and fuel industries. As consumers, we can practice conscious shopping strategies, check which products can be avoided and avoid those that use insane amounts of water for a small final product, such as artificial drinks or meat-derived products. Finally, let’s contact policy leaders. We all have a huge power when it comes to influencing water regulations, and with elections just around the corner, we must demand that candidates include the water crisis as the main issue in their agendas.

Just remember — this water crisis is not someone else’s problem; it is a global issue pertinent to each one of us. So what are you doing to avoid a day zero in California?

Blanca Baron is an anthropologist pursuing a Master of Public Health degree at San Jose State University.

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  • California Defender

    “…such as unexpected population growth”

    The population growth in California is not unexpected. Decades of unfettered immigration, legal and not, were and continue to be planned population growth for political benefit.

    Now California is going to pay dearly for it.

  • s randall

    We have some of the smartest water people here at Berkeley. Here’s a conversation with David Sedlak.


  • Charlie Chan
  • That Guy

    The problem is that water goes into the pipes and never comes out the other end, 35% have leaked into the ground.

    • StanFromSomewhere

      Hmm, funny what happens to infrastructure when your political leaders are focused on retribution for past sins, real or imagined, and drive off the people with the talent, resources, and motivation to keep a civilized society going.

  • Man with Axe

    Instead of forced rationing, which is a kind of tyranny, why not raise the price of water to a level that incentivizes the right amount of water usage. When it becomes excessively expensive to waste water people will stop wasting it.

    I don’t understand why desalinization is dismissed in your article as being unfriendly to the environment. How damaging could it be, when the survival of the city is at stake? They should be building such plants as if their lives depended on it.

    The alternative of living without running water is too awful to contemplate. The repercussions for the city will be more terrible than they can imagine.