Cape Town Tackles Its Water Crisis

Tourists need not worry. There’s still water and Cape Town remains captivating despite going through a drought, Demola Ojo finds out…

“Cape town dam levels are critically low. Please save water while there’s still water to save.” In case you missed the memo (or the announcement by the pilot during the descent into the ‘Mother City’), a signboard with this plea is the first thing you see as you disembark from the plane at the airport in Cape Town, even before getting to the baggage carousel.

Cape Town – widely regarded as the most beautiful city in the world – is facing a water crisis. It has been in the news for months, and the possibility that this tourist hotspot will run out of water in the near future is real. ‘Day Zero’ is the dreaded day, which has thankfully been moved from mid-March to mid-July and just a few days ago, till 2019.

It isn’t by chance though, that the prospect of the first city in modern times to run out of water has been staved off. More than anything else, sensitisation and advocacy have helped in curtailing water use. The signs are everywhere. It welcomes you as you claim your bags. It’s on the walkways and billboards. But everything else seems normal.

The chauffer to the hotel didn’t understand what the fuss was about even though the Theewaterskloof dam, supplier of around half the city’s municipal water, which was full five years ago, now has capacity below 15 per cent. No need to worry, he proclaimed, the situation has been blown out of proportion, he maintained.

And maybe it was the part of town we were passed through, but there were no queues of people waiting to get water, or uniformed men positioned to curtail water riots. It all seemed exactly like the last time I was here, three years ago.

Yet, the signs – in different shapes and sizes – welcome you everywhere. At the check-in counter of the Cape Sun Hotel. By the concierge. Your room door handle. And of course, the most important place, the bathroom.

‘Don’t waste a drop. Cape town is drought stricken.’  ‘Please help us conserve water.’  

 It works. Despite the fact it wasn’t a subject of discussion (nobody decided to advice, complain or remonstrate), I consciously tried to use water minimally. We all (including tourists) have a stake in making sure this city survives and thrives.

Thriving, it is. Many of the people I met and struck up conversations with were tourists from different parts of the world. People are still travelling to Cape Town in droves, from within South Africa, other parts of Africa and beyond. And why not?

Cape Town retains its scenic allure and tourist-friendly vibe. A city tour is a reminder why it always ranks high as one of the world’s must-visit places. From Table Mountain to Signal Hill; Twelve Apostles to Camps Bay; Kirstenbosch Gardens to the Two Oceans Aquarium, and yes, shopping and dining at the V & A Waterfront. 

If anything, the howling winds were more of a factor than depleting water. It meant rescheduling tours to Robben Island and the Table Mountain cable car, as well as holding on to your hat at the beach, lest it gets blown away.


Digging Deep

Sign in the bathroom

There’s more to Cape Town’s increasing optimism that Day Zero will never arrive than just sensitising the public.  For example, Tsogo Sun, one of Africa’s largest hotel groups and parent company of Cape Sun, has managed to reduce water consumption by as much as 40 per cent.

Some practical measures have helped; sheets and towels are changed less regularly, while taps and showerheads have been rigged to slow the flow of water.  At a particular outlet, this saves 60,000 litres per day.

The hotel group has also tapped into the city’s underground aquifers for water.  Like many businesses and households across Cape Town, they are drilling boreholes in a quest for water.

Besides this, Tsogo Sun is installing its own desalination plant. Desalination is a process that extracts salt and other mineral components from salt water to produce water suitable for human consumption or irrigation.

 Just like the rest of the city, the company realizes that if the water stops flowing, so might the visitors. Tourism is a key industry contributing more than $3 billion to the city’s economy every year, though tourists make up less than 2 per cent of the city’s inhabitants even at peak periods.

For companies without the option of drilling or desalination, a company called Air Water offers an alternative solution by providing $2000 machines that harvest humidity and produce roughly 30 litres of water per day from air.

Cape Town needs tourists to keep coming. They consume a minute percentage of the city’s water but contribute so much to the economy. Luckily, bookings for the first quarter of the year have so far not fallen, according to city officials.

Future City

Signboard by baggage carousel

Water scarcity is not an issue restricted to Cape Town. However, since it’s the first major city to be hit by this threat, its survival serves as a template for others.

“I think you’re starting to see South Africa playing a lead role as to how world class cities respond to water crises,” said Sisa Ntshona, CEO of South African Tourism. “Tourists are aware of recycling, carbon emissions. But now it’s water.”

Winter rains are expected in Cape Town starting in May or June. If they arrive, the current crisis will ease, officials predict. But, regardless, “we need to recalibrate our relationship with water as a country,” Ntshona said. “This is the new norm. Even if it rains tomorrow, we can never go back to the old way of consuming water.”

 With climate change expected to bring worsening water shortages to cities around the world, from Sao Paulo to Los Angeles, Beijing to Cairo, Istanbul to London, such changes are going to be needed in many places in years to come. Cape Town’s travails and survival serve as an example for all to follow.

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