The residents of Cape Town are staring down the barrel of one of the worst droughts South Africa has ever seen. With tough water restrictions already in place, things may yet get worse.
It’s hard to imagine Cape Town in the middle of a water crisis.
This is a city that’s come to be synonymous with water. It’s the place where you paraglide off Table Mountain and sail across the Atlantic; where you learn to surf like Mick Fanning; road-trip the peninsula; test your mettle against the great white shark. Cape Town is a coastal playground, and yet the city, and much of the wider Western Cape, is in the middle of one of the worst droughts the country has ever experienced.
While South African tourism heads are still welcoming and encouraging travelers, this remains a particularly fragile time for the city and it’s best to venture with care, concern, and a conscience. With extreme water restrictions in place, and a countdown to the ominous Day Zero on the cards, here’s everything you need to know before you go:
At its most basic, the region just hasn’t had enough rain. It’s a common story the world over: Central Africa is far too familiar with drought, as is much of Australia and California. In a statement released earlier this month, the South Africa tourism board said: “Below average rainfall over a number of years has forced everyone who lives in or visits Cape Town to rethink their water usage behaviors. Responsible consumption of water is the new normal—not just in Cape Town, but in many other water-scarce places in the world.”
Day Zero is the day when dam levels fall below 13.5 per cent (they’re currently at 24.5 per cent) and the City of Cape Town turns off the taps. In the event of Day Zero, Capetonians will have to line up to collect their allocated 25 liters of daily H2O from water points across the city.
The date for Day Zero is constantly changing. It’s a projection based on rates of water consumption. This means the date can be pushed back, brought forward or avoided completely depending on the city’s water habits. While D-Day was scheduled for summer 2018, it’s since been pushed back to 2019—provided citizens are responsible with water usage and decent winter rainfall arrives.
As Day Zero edges closer to reality for Capetonians, the water restrictions have become stricter. The city is now living under Level 6B restrictions which, according to councilor Xanthea Limberg, the City’s mayoral committee member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services, limits water to 50 liters per person per day.
“This is absolutely necessary for us to reduce our collective usage to 450 million liters per day and to ensure that we stretch our water supplies into the winter months and beyond. We are nearing this target and we cannot give up now,” said Limberg.
The entire city is focused on creating new water habits and most of Cape Town has adopted a very ‘we’re in this together’-attitude—posting water shortage signs in bathrooms, water-saving tips in the kitchen, queuing for spring water and helping neighbors install water tanks.
Right now, the water crisis isn’t having a dramatic effect on travelers. There is H2O available for all your daily needs (we’re talking hydration and hygiene); all big-ticket attractions in the city are still up and running (although if you’re planning on white-water rafting, that might be an issue); and perhaps, most importantly, all restaurants and bars are serving up the deliciousness as per usual (in accordance with water restrictions).
But if you’re visiting Cape Town, you do need to be on your best water behavior. Make sure you check any expectations of a long shower (maximum scrub time is 90 seconds) at the door; are OK with letting your bathroom business ‘mellow if it’s yellow’; forget about baths; start using hand sanitizer instead of a faucet; turn off running water while brushing your teeth; and collect excess shower water in a bucket to be used for flushing. Travelers aren’t exempt from the 50-liter water maximum a day, so don’t give your hostel a hard time if the pool is out of order or your laundry isn’t turned around in 24 hours.
That said, the South African tourism board recommends all travelers pay careful attention to crisis updates and when Day Zero hits to “contact a travel agent or tour operator to determine what measures are in place to continue the supply of water”.
The long-term prediction is not good. The region isn’t expecting much rain during the start of winter; in fact authorities are saying they’re likely to see below-average rainfall for the whole season. A forecast that is, obviously, not encouraging. If everyone sticks to the 50-liters-a-day rule, then Day Zero will continue to be pushed back, at least until the government’s water strategies hopefully start bearing fruit.
The long answer is like a long-distance relationship: Complicated. A number of short-term initiatives have been given the green light, such as strict water restrictions, activated water rationing through pressure reduction, use of the 22,000 privately-owned boreholes, collecting spring water, and installing rain tanks. For the long-term, the city is in the process of establishing large-scale water collection points to be used in the event of taps running dry.
Besides abiding by the water restrictions, if you want to help, you might consider donating rainwater tanks to those who can’t afford them or sponsoring plumbers to fix leaks and help install graywater systems.
Other than that, the golden rule is to use much less wherever you go, even when you’re outside the city. Why? Because the municipal drinking water you’re using still comes from the same dam system. So use little and help Cape Town a lot.
All water crisis information is reviewed weekly; for up-to-date info, visit www.capetown.gov.za/thinkwater.
You can also access the WWF ‘Wednesday Water Files’ for community-minded help.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.