On the Ground During Cape Town's Water Crisis
Amid the worst drought on record, the city has threatened to turn off the taps on its nearly 4 million residents. Our correspondent spent a week there while he could still get a shower.
The view from Mantra Café in Cape Town, South Africa, goes well with a cappuccino and ham-and-cheese omelet. The second-story restaurant overlooks the cold Atlantic where it rolls into Camps Bay Beach. This tony suburb of the so-called Mother City looks and feels like Southern California. Boutique hotels and restaurants serving organic food face the ocean. Evenly spaced palm trees line the beach. But surrounding the trees, what is typically a parklike expanse of green grass is brown, dry dirt.
“Yeah, they can’t water the grass anymore,” said Frank Solomon, a local surfer I met for breakfast on March 5. “Who cares, right? We don’t really need grass.” He pointed across the bay to a bald headland jutting into the ocean. Half a dozen surfers bobbed in the mist at the corner of the bay. The high school he attended sits about 500 feet from the shore. “We could watch the surf from school. Usually that whole hillside is green grass.”
Frank was born and raised in the nearby suburb of Hout Bay. Mantra Café was his choice for breakfast partly because these upscale neighborhoods are at the center of Cape Town’s water issues. Eighty-six percent of the city’s water is consumed in the city center and the suburbs, places like Camps Bay and Llandudno Beach, where I’d met Frank the day before, at the Rolling Retro competition, where a pack of dogs ripped up and down the beach, the local Striped Horse lager was cheap and cold, and the opinions as to why Cape Town is out of water were easy to come by.
One man, who said he was born and raised in Cape Town, claimed that it boiled down to years of government corruption and inaction. The drought has been bad, he said, but bureaucracy is to blame. “This is Africa,” he said.
Another man, also born here, said that as a kid he learned that the surrounding desert encroached on the city a half-mile per year. We live in a very dry place, he said. Then he leaned closer and whispered that, if I really wanted to know, the current water shortage could be blamed on the recent influx of newcomers to town. He gestured toward the crowd in front of us. “But no one here wants to hear that,” he said with a shrug.
Regardless of who is to blame, everyone is dealing with the consequences. Since February 1, Cape Town residents have been told to use less than 13.2 gallons of water per day, turn off the taps while brushing their teeth, and flush toilets with gray water collected in buckets from their showers.
Cape Town’s water shortage began in 2015, when winter (May to August) rains failed to fill the six reservoirs that, until this year, supplied 100 percent of the city’s water. The winters of 2016 and 2017 were equally grim, and by February of this year, the bottom of the trough was in sight—the reservoirs were at 25 percent capacity. The city announced its water restrictions and at the same time forecast a Day Zero—the point at which the city would have to shut off its taps. It was initially set for April 22, then bumped forward to April 12 when reservoir levels dropped worryingly low. But the code-red messages from the city were heard, people saved water, and the city pushed Day Zero to July 15. It’s now postponed until next year, thanks in large part to individuals conserving water.
“The short-term response has been a historic cut in water consumption—by 57 percent in three years,” said Tim Harris, CEO of Wesgro, a government agency promoting tourism, development, and investment in Cape Town and the Western Cape province. For most of 2018, Harris has been putting out fires lit by media reports that Cape Town will be the world’s first major city to run out of water. He wasn’t sure that would happen.
I talked to Harris on March 7, two days before the the city postponed Day Zero until 2019, and even then he didn’t think Cape Town would run out of water. Harris echoed what I would hear from several people during my week in the Cape: that the unified response by residents to accept and mitigate the situation was instrumental in avoiding Day Zero.
“Ordinary Capetonians made this happen,” Harris said. “It wasn’t looking to the leaders and saying, ‘You solve this for us.’ It was everybody making individual decisions that got us through this.”
After breakfast at Mantra Café, Frank and I jumped in my small white rental car that hadn’t been washed—washing cars is absolutely forbidden in Cape Town, punishable by a $248 fine—and drove to Hout Bay, his hometown. On the way, I told him that I’d read about people queuing up for water at collection points in low-income neighborhoods. He looked at me sideways.
“Those neighborhoods have never had any plumbing,” he said.
In Hout Bay, Frank turned left at the Nutmeg Farmstall coffee shop and drove from the first world into the developing world. We entered a neighborhood known as the Imizamo Yethu township. Like ghettoes or favelas, townships in South Africa are underdeveloped segregated urban areas, most of them in existence since apartheid. The Imizamo Yethu township, set up in 1991 for black squatters who couldn’t legally own land, has wanted for adequate plumbing and sewer systems since it was established.
Most of the houses were shacks, built into and on top of each other and roofed with corrugated tin held down with heavy objects like rocks or car parts. Women cooked on open fires in front of houses. A few kids wandered down the center of the road. Grown men sat on stairs or leaned in doorways, decamped from life in various angles of repose.
“You think these people are worried about Day Zero?” Frank asked. I pointed out a hand-painted sign that read in whitewash letters “CAR WSH.” An arrow pointed up the hill. “The police tell them they can’t wash cars, but the people washing the cars say they’re going to keep doing it because it’s the only thing they can do.”
The townships in the Cape Town area and the informal developments, or shantytowns, on the outskirts of the city, though expansive and densely populated, use comparatively little water. Farming and agriculture currently consume about 5 percent of the water, and the industry has managed to survive restrictions, reduced water allocations, and dismal productivity. But the vast majority of the water is going to the suburbs, the tourist areas, the centers of development and money that earned Cape Town its reputation as Africa’s land of opportunity.
“People are moving to Cape Town because there’s work here,” Frank said. “I talked to one guy who said he’d walked here from the Congo.”
Business in Cape Town appeared to be running unabated by the water shortage. The Hout Bay waterfront has supported a fishing industry since the mid-19th century, and on a Monday afternoon last month, the waterfront hummed with activity. We drove past one dock that was fenced off with razor wire and guarded by an armed man wearing a helmet. Large fish the size of young pigs hung on a rack beside a boat. “Yellowfin tuna headed to Japan,” Frank said.
At the unfenced docks on the other side of the bay, near the Fish 4 Africa seafood wholesaler, the fishing boat Aquilla was unloading its catch under a loud kettle of circling gulls. Dark men wearing ski caps and rubber pants with suspenders passed crates of fish up an assembly line to the dock, where a woman stood with a clipboard. Half a dozen crates of fish heads slid onto the cement in front of us. Everything was packed in granular ice. Dozens of crates came up the line and were carried into a cement building. A man with a push broom swept drifts of spilled ice into a shallow gutter.
The cement building was full of movement and chatter. Women wearing plastic aprons and gloves used long knives to process the catch on cement tables. One woman washed a stack of filets with a hose. Another woman edged past me, dragging a running garden hose. Water ran everywhere—over the floor and the tables and the crates of fish. The cleaned meat was again packed in granular ice and slid outside, where it glared like perishable snow under the African sun. The gutter full of fish parts and melting ice ran off the end of the dock, where a dozen Cape fur seals in a food coma floated like far-gone opium addicts.
“Looks like business as usual around here,” Frank said as we walked away.
In the previous week, I’d heard plenty of rumors about the water crisis—don’t eat fruits or vegetables, because no one’s washing produce; the city smells like a sewer; construction projects had been halted because cement needs water—but not much of what I’d heard was true. Construction had continued. The fruit and vegetables were fine. The only place that smelled like urine was the airport bathroom, where the toilets weren’t flushing, a man mopped the floor with bottled water, and hand sanitizer had replaced soap and running water.
Frank had just returned from a six-week trip to Hawaii and California when I met him. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came home,” he said. “But it made me think while I was in San Clemente, in California, that people there waste a lot of water. This isn’t just something Cape Town should be thinking about. We should all be conserving water.”
The new normal is what people are calling it here. Cape Town is in a dry place that appears to be getting drier—much like other major cities, including Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Melbourne, Australia. It’s a water-scarce environment, and everyone—people who live here, people doing business here, those who visit—must be conscious of conserving water. The message Harris has been trying to get across is that if individuals are willing to make changes, they can have a real impact.
“The good news is that we’ve learned that it’s possible to inspire residents into action,” he said. “But the more relevant question is: How does a city in the developing world become a model for resiliency to climate change?”
The short answer is through diversification of the city’s water sources. In the next few months, Cape Town hopes to get half its water from new sources: three desalination plants that are being fast-tracked into service, a wastewater-recycling facility, and three aquifers that the city has never tapped for the municipal water supply. Those aquifers—which in some places are less than a few meters from the surface and directly under the city—are widely seen as the lowest-hanging fruit and could produce about one-third (or roughly 40 million gallons) of the city’s current daily consumption. The temporary water-recycling facility and the desalination plants, which are the most costly and energy demanding of the three augmentation schemes, are scheduled to come online throughout 2018.
The current restrictions limiting people to roughly 13 gallons per day aren’t likely to be lifted until May, and while the city waits for winter rains, the conservation rhetoric remains strong. The Airbnb I stayed at was full of water-conservation cards and pamphlets distributed by the city. The upscale Hippo Hotel in the Garden District had a red plastic bucket in the shower and instructions to take stop-start showers and turn off the taps while brushing. The World Wildlife Fund had a water-conservation display at Cape Town’s tourist hub, called the V&A Waterfront, also the site of a desalination plant. Driving around the city and its suburbs, the most obvious signs of people’s commitment to conserving water, and to having garden plants and green lawns, are JoJo Tanks: large green cisterns for collecting rainwater.
“My girlfriend has two of them,” Frank said. “I think Mr. JoJo may have something to do with this drought.”
Before I dropped Frank at his house, we stopped at a grocery store so he could buy some food and bottled water, which the city has subsidized to ensure that it sells for roughly what it did a year ago, before the crisis. Frank lives on a steep hillside overlooking the beach. The Cape Fold Mountains stand directly over the city, isolating it from any significant river drainage.
As we drove down the switchbacks to Frank’s house, I noticed a swimming pool full of water. “You can buy water,” he said. “Farmers will bring it to you in a truck. There’s no water shortage an hour east of the city.”