What We Can Learn from Cape Town’s Water Crisis

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Oct 18, 2018
by Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu
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What We Can Learn from Cape Town’s Water Crisis

Researcher Noxolo Kabane discusses the impact of recent water crisis on health and health care in one of South Africa's capital cities Noxolo Kabane, researcher and public policy practitioner with the Western Cape Department of Human Settlement, at Salzburg Global Seminar

“By 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water” is the stark warning which accompanies the sixth goal of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

But for the people of Cape Town and neighboring towns in the Western Cape province of South Africa, 2050 has already arrived. Over the past few years, climate change has meant rainfall for Cape Town has significantly reduced.

As such, the Cape Town dam supplying much of the city’s water has been drying up quickly. “Day Zero,” a day where taps run dry in the city of 4.2 million habitants, had been scheduled for August 2018. This ominous occasion has since been pushed back until 2019.

While climate change contributed majorly to reclining dam levels, the failure of city authorities to manage water effectively and the unsustainable use by citizens also played a role.

“It became really really bad in that our dam levels reached less than 20% in terms of water capacity…[and so we had] to put in place water restrictions,” says Noxolo Kabane, researcher and public policy practitioner with the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements, speaking at the Salzburg Global Seminar program, Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment.

The decision to push back “Day Zero” came after significant rainfall and a raft of drastic measures to control water use, which were implemented by the provincial government. Water use was reduced to 50 liters per person, many public toilets were shut, and watering lawns with tap water was discouraged. The government used a system to monitor water meters and cut off and fined households deemed to be wasting water.

The water crisis had great implications for health. In some cases, hospitals were not getting water because of the restrictions. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down” was the mantra used to urged Capetonians to flush feces, not urine. Not flushing increased the risk of urinary tract infection and the closure of handwashing sinks in public places also increased the risk of other diseases.

One of the legacies of apartheid which remains is the race divide in housing that exists in many parts of South Africa. The end of apartheid witnessed an increase in urbanization as the majority black population were able to move freely. But decades of racial exclusion meant cities such as Cape Town had no plans for them hence the spawning of informal settlements such as Khayelitsha. For residents of Cape Town’s informal settlements, who already had limited access to basic sanitation services, the crisis hit hard.

Kabane says, “But the flip side to that is that we were learning from them [on how to cope] because that was a daily reality: not having access to water and the resilience [they had built over time] ... around water saving and being more water savvy.”

The dams are rising now, but Kabane warns of complacency. “There is this perception that we are fine,” she says, “but I don’t think this is the attitude we should be having. We should still be sticking to using water in a sustainable manner...”

Kabane says “we should not take water for granted because we assume that when the dams are full, we have got water in abundance and that it will never run out. We should always be futuristic in terms of the resource and how we use it.”

Kabane hopes Cape Town’s crisis will spark conversations around water use by governments and citizens. She says, “Being more proactive is what I think other countries can learn from Cape Town. We’re faced with a situation where we had to act very quickly, whereas if we had planned before the time...I think we could have handled the situation better.”

In hindsight, Kabane believes a benefit of the crisis was people began to evaluate how they used water. She says, “It was not something that was
just left to environmentalists who are the ones that normally advocate for sustainable use of natural resources. But now, it became the whole of society... [with] people actually sharing ideas with each other in terms what they are doing in their homes to save water, so people stood together and held hands to walk through the crisis.”


The program Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment is part of Salzburg Global Seminar's multi-year series Health and Health Care Innovation. This year's program is held in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the program. Follow #SGShealth on Twitter and Instagram.