Drought, water management, and social equity: Analyzing Cape Town, South Africa's water crisis

Drought, water management, and social equity: Analyzing Cape Town, South Africa's water crisis

Cameron M. Calverley Suzanne C. Walther*

  • Department of Environmental and Ocean Sciences, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, United States

Climate change impacts on hydrologic systems, coupled with increasing water demand and a growing global population, has led to depleted water resources in semi-arid regions around the world. This increase in water shortages has significant implications for environmental justice and equity concerns. One such region impacted by both water scarcity and deep-seated inequality is the Western Cape of South Africa, whose drought crisis reached peak recognition when the City of Cape Town released its notice of “Day Zero” in 2018, the day the city would turn off the taps to residents. This study examines the changes in physical factors prior to and during the 2015–2018 drought in Cape Town and evaluates how policy decisions made in response to this event interacted with existing social injustices. Analysis of the physical data finds only a slight direct relationship between rainfall and dam levels (r2 = 0.3), suggesting a more complex narrative for the decrease in water supply, including increased water use and management decisions. Of the many policies implemented to avoid Day Zero, some were found to be more effective and can be utilized long-term. The study also finds that the Cape Town water crisis has unveiled and heightened existing inequalities through placing a disproportionate financial burden on low-income communities. As droughts become more common, Cape Town provides a crucial case study for understanding the social, political, and environmental implications of drought management in the future.


Climate change impacts on hydrologic systems, coupled with an increasing water demand from a growing population, have led to conflict over water resources in semi-arid regions around the world. Although water is critical to human health and survival as well as economic growth and production, over a billion people in developing countries lack adequate access to water (Ziervogel et al., 2010). Global climate change will undoubtedly be a major stressor on freshwater ecosystems, especially in arid and semi-arid regions in the latter half of the twenty-first century (du Plessis, 2019).

One such region is the Western Cape of South Africa, notably Cape Town, whose water scarcity recently reached a level that significantly threatened the freshwater supply of its citizens. Low levels of rainfall led to the worst drought in the region since 1904 (Otto et al., 2018). Annual rainfall in the Western Cape had been steadily decreasing in the last few decades, with 2017 having the lowest annual rainfall since 1933 (Morabito, 2018). Past research suggests that human-caused climate change made this drought five to six times more likely to occur (Tucker, 2020). Along with low rainfall, Cape Town's water resources are also under increasing stress due to a consistently increasing population. The city's population grew from 2.4 million people in 1996 to 4 million in 2017, a 67% increase. During the same time, the dam storage capacity only increased by about 15%, and rainfall remained highly variable (Nhamo and Agyepong, 2019). This forebodes further future water supply scarcity and the viability of future water access, a crisis seen around the world as more people move to urban centers, placing pressure on the water sources supplying these cities (Parker et al., 2018).

During the 2014–2017 drought, the overall dam levels supplying Cape Town dropped from 92.5 to 23% (Nhamo and Agyepong, 2019). Cape Town's water crisis reached peak recognition when the city released its notice of “Day Zero” in January of 2018. Originally predicted to be in April 2018, Day Zero was the point when the dam levels that supply the city's water would hit 13.5%, at which time citywide water rationing would be enforced (Millington and Scheba, 2020). At that point, taps would shut off to residents and water distributed through communal standpipes, limited to 25 l per person per day, as per the World Health Organization's minimum short-term emergency survival recommendations. In part due to management decisions and several subsequent high rainfall events in the winter of 2018, “Day Zero” never became a reality, though the city strongly felt the effects of water shortage during these years. Although much of the press focused on Cape Town as a major metropolitan area, this drought affected cities across the region.

Extreme events like Day Zero could become much more common by the end of the century (Tucker, 2020). Therefore, this multi-year drought in the Western Cape can serve as an example for other water scarce cities and regions to explore their changing drought risks. As climate change hazards worsen, it is crucial to understand the physical changes up to this point, and to evaluate the strategies and adaptations the city undertook in response. This includes assessing the changes in environmental conditions, but also the political, economic, and social implications of a reduced and variable water supply. Prioritizing water resources management is necessary, as decreasing water availability in these regions could easily lead to social unrest and conflict. South Africa has undertaken significant progress in their water policy and infrastructure, which provides a unique case study of changing management decisions. Understanding the crisis in Cape Town requires recognizing the role of the governance system, as it provides the foundation for the management and accessibility of water.

Further, water resource policy and management have significant implications for environmental equity and justice. Water access and allocation are deeply social processes; therefore, to explain the Cape Town crisis, it is crucial to recognize how they intersect with social justice issues. The World Economic and Social Survey found that poor and marginalized groups would likely experience the worst impacts of future water shortages (Savelli et al., 2021). The history of water access in South Africa mirrors its political history, divided along racial and class lines. Because South Africa has such a deep history of inequity, the policy outcomes from this event may also provide a test case for the justice concerns that accompany water scarcity in other regions.

Attempts at addressing and improving water resources management is not new. In fact, since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 1992 (Rio), the concept of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), defined by the Global Water Partnership as a process promoting the coordinated development and management of water resources to maximize economic and social welfare with considerations of equity and sustainability of vital ecosystems, and what it means in practice has been the topic of extensive discussion (Hassing et al., 2009). Numerous studies present case studies of integrated approaches in water management in drought prone areas, such as Australia (Mitchell, 2006) and Mexico (Wilder and Romero Lankao, 2006). While others examine policy linkages to equity in access in Namibia and Botswana (Thomas and Twyman, 2005) and incorporating equity into policy in watersheds in Texas and Arizona (Toledo, 2021). Further, Goff (2020) evaluated indigenous and non-indigenous approaches to water management in Australia for improved equity. However, Allouche (2020) notes that a divide between integration approaches and equity in water resource management remains and calls for interdisciplinary analysis interlinking equity, sustainability, and integration. Similarly, Keeler et al. (2020) developed a general toolkit for new approaches in order to advance water equity, seen as still lacking within sustainability science. Thus, the policies put forth in water-stressed regions around the world still need to be evaluated and assessed in the context of place, culture, and people so that lessons learned can inform small (or large) adjustments to achieve the goal of IWRM.

The aim of this study is two-fold. One goal is to determine the changes in the water bodies, rainfall, water usage, and population in the Western Cape over the last decade to better understand the water shortage. These findings may inform potential future impacts in other similarly populated cities and climates. The second goal is to evaluate the water policy actions taken in response to water scarcity in Cape Town through a socio-hydrological lens to determine the viability and justice of these adaptations. This study does not provide a systemic and all-encompassing analysis of the issue of water supply or governance as a whole, but rather presents a descriptive case study intended to continue the discourse on equity in water management that can be used in future analysis and discussion of freshwater supplies affected by climate change.

Specifically, the project aims to answer the following questions:

• How did physical factors (rainfall, population, dam storage, water usage) change within the last decade at the major supply dams leading up to the 2018 Day Zero drought event in Cape Town?

• What policies, adaptations, and management decisions did the government take to avoid Day Zero? What aspects of these policies remain today that could be adapted and/or sustained long term?

• How do the present policies address equitable access to water resources, and how can future adaptations ensure water access is environmentally just?

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