Cape Town is at risk of becoming the world’s first large metropolis to run out of water after a three-year long drought. Dams are at 17% of capacity and at some point in April this year – on or about the 21st according to the latest estimates – Cape Town will wake up to ‘Day Zero’, when toilets and taps will run dry. If that happens, 4 million residents will need to queue at standpipes to receive their 25 litres of rationed water per day. The remaining piped water would be prioritised for hospitals as well as standpipes in the poorer townships to prevent a public health catastrophe.
The immediate cause of the crisis has been two years of unusually low rainfall, with 153.5mm of annual rain recorded at Cape Town’s airport in 2017 compared to more than 500mm in 2014. Another year of drought cannot be ruled out.
Cape Town’s stark inequalities have exacerbated the crisis. Vast lawns and swimming pools in mainly white suburbs are draining away efforts to conserve resources. Residents are being urged to use only 50 litres a day from February 2018 to meet a target for citywide daily use of 450m litres. That is 150m below the total current household use. In the townships, home to about 900,000 people, water scarcity is a fact of life. Some farms and hotels in the region have halved water use. Others are emptying the supermarkets of their bottled water: the result will be less water for everyone in just a few months’ time.
The evidence suggests that weather patterns will become less predictable and extreme events more frequent. Many of the world’s largest cities are acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change: longer droughts, heavier rainfall, rising sea levels, fiercer wildfires, intensifying air pollution and soaring heatwaves.
In richer countries, cities should, in theory, be able to adapt. Many city mayors are adopting policies to cut carbon emissions, from transport, in particular, but few are doing enough to prepare for and adapt to climate change.
South Africa’s weather services has told politicians that their models are no longer accurate and that long-term climate change predictions have arrived ten years early. Some investments, which would have failed cost-benefit analyses ten years ago – such as expensive desalinization in Cape Town – are now considered to be essential.
Cities experiencing rapid population growth must resist the pressure to allow developments in areas at high risk of floods, landslides or wildfires. They also need to update building regulations, liaise with the insurance industry, and pay closer attention to the greater risks faced by poorer residents.