Cape Town is a popular tourist destination and business center in South Africa. It’s famous for beachfront hotels, renowned restaurants, numerous investment opportunities, and large art museums.
It’s also the victim of the worst urban drought in modern recorded history. The ecological and political reasons behind this catastrophe are important to consider when preparing other city centers for similar disasters.
Even more so, knowing how Cape Town dealt with and recovered from this crisis provides an ideal situation to convince people who may have been deterred by the water crisis from visiting or investing in Cape Town to give it another chance.
2017 was a shaky year, but Cape Town is back to the bustling, beautiful destination it’s always been.
Summary of the causes
The drought in Cape Town was the result of many different crisscrossing causes both environmental and social. The first involved Cape Town’s population boom. More people were living in the city than ever before. By 2017, the population had risen 47% over the previous decade, according to Cape Town’s census reports.
This meant that 2017 coincided with the largest drain on the city’s limited water reserves in the city’s history. At the same time that the population grew that much, the city’s dam capacity only raised by 15% with the construction of the Berg River Dam in 2007.
In retrospect, Cape Town was lucky to have it, or things could have gone much worse.
In addition to more people, 2017 saw the lowest recorded rainfall in the city’s history. This broke the back of the city’s reserves.
Despite knowledge of these limitations, the city legislature was not able to coordinate in time with national departments. This resulted in the agriculture industry (a huge drain on the city’s supply) being out of the loop in terms of water restrictions until after the 2017 watering season.
This unfettered irrigated was the last straw in Cape Town’s impending water shortage.
Thus, a lack of environmental conscientiousness led Cape Town to the brink of what it called “Day Zero,” which was the day that the government would have to seize control of the city’s water to keep the city alive.
The implications of Day Zero
Day Zero was the name given to the possibility of the dam’s reserves dipping below 13.5%. At this time, the plan was to begin enforcing federal water rationing, with citizens receiving their daily 6.6 gallons from queues.
To avoid this extreme measure, the city’s water was rationed informally in the form of tutorials and mandates given out by the city urging tourists, businesses, and Capetonians to find ways to reuse water.
They did everything from reusing handwashing water for plants to collecting extra shower water for use in toilet flushing. By taking these extreme measures, Cape Town pushed Day Zero back indefinitely. By reducing the city’s water usage by 50%, the dams were given room to breathe.
Now, Cape Town’s water supply is back up to 70% capacity, plenty to release restrictions and pronounce the crisis closed.
A more progressive future
Cape Town learned lessons in environmental sustainability from the drought and successive water crisis. Other cities could stand to learn these same lessons.
They are now progressing toward a much more sustainable future in resource management, reshaping infrastructure to deal with future water shortages. By affecting awareness, the water crisis became a force for the better.
This means that it’s time to reacquaint the tourism and investment sectors with the full confidence of the rest of the world. There’s no reason to take the past water crisis as a reason to cancel a trip to Cape Town. On the contrary, by showing the city’s resolve and creating its newfound environmental conscience, the crisis implies a city changed for the better.
By making Cape Town struggle, the water crisis inadvertently made it shine. The city officials and business leaders, as well as all the conscientious Capetonians, were able to reduce water usage enough to avoid Day Zero and halt the crisis before it got worse.
Even though political and environmental factors contributed to the crisis, the shared accountability of the city solved it. Not only is this a lesson for other city planners, but it’s a genuinely optimistic tale of resilience for those who are still wondering whether they should invest in this beautiful city.
Before discounting it as your next vacation destination, consider Cape Town as a progressive city, evolving towards a better, more environmentally friendly future.