Cape Town is just the beginning of South Africa’s spreading water crisis

People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb of Cape Town
People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb of Cape Town
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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Durban, South Africa

Though Cape Town is dealing with the prospect of “Day Zero,” the shortage of water that threatens to cripple South Africa’s second-largest city could ravage the rest of the country as well.

Restrictions on water use are also in effect in both Durban and Johannesburg, where officials warned recently that usage of water “has increased at an alarming rate.” Levels at dams in both the nation’s Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces have reached dangerously low levels.

Dams that serve Nelson Mandela Bay, the metropolitan area that includes Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s fifth-largest city, were at 26% total combined capacity in the latest tally, roughly half as full as a year ago. The dam that supplies water to much of Durban and its northern suburbs has remained less than 25% full for the past year.

After weeks of leaving management of the shortage to local and provincial officials, the national government said on Thursday it plans to declare the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape provinces disaster ​areas ​and to assume responsibility for coordinating the response.

The problems stem in part from a lack of rainfall. Since 2013, South Africa has endured some of the driest years in more than a century. (Cape Town is expected to receive some much-needed rain from night into Saturday morning).

But the drought tells only part of the story, according to Zachary Donnenfeld, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, who says the country’s water woes also reflect a combination of overuse and under-investment in infrastructure for treating and transporting water.

“The [threat of] Day Zero in Cape Town is important and requires immediate attention, but there’s a large, more systemic problem going on in the country that rationing and restrictions are not going to address,” Donnenfeld says.

For years, South Africa has lacked a culture of water conservation, according to Donnenfeld, who in a recent report notes that South Africans consume, on average, 235 liters (62 gallons) per person daily, compared with a global average of 173 liters (46 gallons)—a figure that Donnenfeld says in all likelihood masks inequality in consumption between wealthy South Africans and those who live in poverty.

High-per capita usage rates also reflect loss of water through leaks, a reliance on coal-fired power plants that impact water quality and quantity, and inattention to harvesting groundwater, which is less vulnerable to drought than water stored in dams.

What’s more, South Africa treats only about 60% of wastewater, much of it inadequately, says Donnenfeld, who cites a survey last year by AfriForum that found two-thirds of the country’s municipal sewage treatment plants did not meet quality standards.

“If you return inadequately treated water to a system you can deteriorate the quality of the water and make it unfit for human consumption, which can have negative effects on quantity,” he says. “If you have a ton of water you can’t drink anymore, effectively you have less water.”

At the same time, South Africa’s national development plan calls for expanding farmland under irrigation by 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) without saying where the water will come from.

“South Africa has been drinking more water than it has to drink for a number of years,” says Donnenfeld. “You can take more water out of the system than is reliable, but at some point, that water system will collapse. That’s the line South Africa is walking right now.”