Mayor Patricia de Lille. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mayor Patricia de Lille. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille says she has a new reason to hate Mondays.

That’s when she gets weekly reports on levels in the dams that supply SA’s second-biggest city, and on how much water its 4-million residents are using.

The numbers regularly show that "Day Zero" — when most taps could stop running — will probably arrive in May, a month or two before the onset of the winter rains.

"We have to change our relationship with water," says De Lille, who has filled in her swimming pool and stopped washing her car.

The city’s poor, who are wholly dependent on the municipal supply and have limited space to store water, have been the hardest hit

She spends 70% of her working day dealing with the crisis. "We have to plan for being permanently in a drought-stricken area," she says in her office on the sixth floor of the Cape Town Civic Centre.

Cape Town, whose lush, stunning setting induced explorer Francis Drake in 1580 to call it "the most stately thing and the fairest cape we ever saw", risks running dry.

The severity of the crisis, brought on by three years of poor rains and surging water demand, is highly unusual even at a time of climate extremes, says Bob Scholes, a professor of systems ecology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

"Running out of water in places that have a highly developed water infrastructure is not that common," he says. "I know of no example of a city the size of Cape Town running out of water. It would be quite catastrophic."

The water shortage has become staple dinner-table and radio talk show conversation, and a Facebook group on how to save water and prepare for outages has drawn more than 121,000 followers.

Rainwater-tank suppliers and borehole companies are doing a roaring trade as those residents who can pay seek to reduce their reliance on the municipal grid.

Massmart’s building supply chain Builders Warehouse, which sells the tanks, and driller De Wets Water & Boreholes both have waiting lists of at least six months.

It’s an alarming development for a city that draws millions of tourists a year to its sandy beaches, iconic flat-topped Table Mountain and picturesque wine lands.

In a bid to curb consumption, the city has banned residents from watering their gardens and washing their cars, shut most public swimming pools and cut the water pressure, causing intermittent outages in some high-lying areas and tall apartment buildings.

The city’s poor, who are wholly dependent on the municipal supply and have limited space to store water, have been the hardest hit.

Patricia Gxothelwa, 34, an unemployed resident of Imizamo Yethu township near Hout Bay, has to use a bucket to collect water from communal taps a short walk away when the supply is cut off from the hillside shack she shares with her husband and four children. It’s an increasingly regular occurrence.

"Sometimes they cut our water off for two or three hours," Gxothelwa says as she gestures towards her single inlet pipe. "It’s more than before, once or twice a week. Water is one of our biggest problems."

Three straight years of poor rains typically occur less than once in a millennium, according to University of Cape Town climatologists Piotr Wolski, Bruce Hewitson and Chris Jack.

It’s unclear what has caused such extreme drought, though climate change is a possible factor and the city should brace itself for a recurrence, they said in a study published on October 6.

A 50% increase in Cape Town’s population over the past decade has added to the pressure on the water supply. The city has drawn new residents from the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, drawn by the slower-paced seaside lifestyle, as well as from the Eastern Cape, where there are fewer job opportunities.

Also hindering efforts to respond to the crisis: a lack of co-ordination and co-operation between the ANC-controlled national government and the DA-run city and Western Cape.

Appeals to have the entire Western Cape declared a disaster zone went unheeded for months and the national water department, which is responsible for bulk supply, has exhausted its budget, according to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.

"The city responded quite belatedly to some of the signals for various reasons, some of which may be not wanting to lose voter confidence, delays with tendering processes and not wanting to invest in projects unnecessarily," says Martine Visser, a professor and behavioural economist at the University of Cape Town who is been advising the city. "But when you look at the drop in consumption, particularly among high-income households, then I think they have been quite successful."

While average daily water consumption has plummeted to about 600-million litres of water a day from 1.1-billion litres a year ago, about half of households still are not adhering to the city’s usage targets. About 19,000 homes that have regularly exceeded their recommended quotas have had mandatory devices fitted to their inlet pipes that restrict them to 350 litres a day.

Besides trying to curb usage, the city is also rushing to augment water supply from the rain-fed dams by tapping underground aquifers, springs and boreholes, and is fast-tracking plans to build several desalination plants.

De Lille says she’s is confident the city can avoid Day Zero, which will occur if dam levels hit 13.5% (they are currently at about 35%, down from 53% a year ago and 92% in 2014).

But contingency plans are being put in place for that eventuality. They include distributing drinking water at 200 collection points, guarded by the police and army, and rationing residents to 25 litres each.

"I don’t want to underestimate how catastrophic Day Zero could be," says Clem Sunter, an independent scenario planner who has also been advising the city.

"It would require thousands of tankers to provide a minimal level of water to each person. You would have to think of temporarily evacuating people."


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