Just a few years ago Cape Town’s water supply seemed secure. Access to water in South Africa’s largest city was taken for granted, and affluent residents prided themselves on well-kept lawns and backyard pools. Now, after almost three years of record-breaking drought, Cape Town is dealing with a scenario that a major developed city has never faced in the 21st century. In May, the taps could run dry, leaving Capetonians without reliable access to water.
Cape Town has always depended on dams and reservoirs to ensure a steady supply of water, but in recent decades infrastructure projects failed to keep up with population growth. In just over 20 years, Cape Town’s population grew by around 80 per cent, from 2.4 million in 1995 to 4.3 million in 2018. During the same time period dam storage increased by only 15 per cent. Combined with the population boom, erratic weather and a persistent drought have created a severe crisis.
Even with water restrictions in place, experts have said that 11 May will be “Day Zero”. This is the official date when reservoir capacity will reach 13.5 per cent and the city will no longer be able to provide water to its residents. City officials, while doing all they can to avert disaster, are reckoning with the fact that the current crisis isn’t a short-term problem. Less frequent rainfall and a changing climate means that drier conditions are likely to become the new normal.
Photographer and Cape Town resident Kelvin Trautman provided UN Environment with a series of photos that document the crisis.
An aerial view of the Theewaterskloof Dam, the largest of Cape Town’s feeder dams. Its capacity is greater than that of the 13 other supply dams combined, but a record-breaking drought has nearly emptied it.
Theewaterskloof Dam was built to hold half the city’s water supply, but is currently under 15 per cent capacity. The failure of winter rains, which normally fill Cape Town’s reservoirs, has led to the worst drought in over a century.
Due to its arid climate, Cape Town has long depended on dams and reservoirs to catch rainfall and supply its water needs. One of the earliest was the Steenbras Lower Dam, originally completed in 1921. Its height has been repeatedly raised over the years, a reflection of Cape Town’s never-ending battle to ensure an adequate water supply.
As the city’s population swelled over the past century, water shortages proved to be a recurring problem, creating a need for a constantly expanding system of dams and water treatment facilities. The Steenbras Lower Dam was designed to be Cape Town’s main reservoir when it was first built, but is now only one part of a 14-dam system that provides water to the city.
The empty reservoir of Steenbras Upper Dam. City officials have reduced per capita water consumption to 50 litres (13 gallons) per day, but even this may not be enough to avert disaster.
Exposed trees, normally covered by water, are stark reminders of how low the water has dropped at Theewaterskloof Dam. Even if rain returns and breaks the drought, which is by no means guaranteed, several years of good, consistent rainfall would be necessary to bring the city’s reservoirs back to pre-2015 levels.
Winter rains have historically refilled reservoirs between April and September, but many experts say the city won’t be able to depend on this pattern in the future.
The Theewaterskloof pump station, seen in the background, is almost to the point where it will be unable to pump water. While none of Cape Town’s dams are completely empty, the last 10 per cent of a reservoir is unusable due to mud. If the reservoir system reaches this level, then Capetonians could be limited to collecting 25 litres a day from emergency water stations.
Climate change and extended periods of drought mean Cape Town’s dams may no longer operate like they once did. While the city is looking into desalination plants and water recycling projects, serious cuts in water consumption will be necessary to adjust to this new normal.
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