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Public leaders in all three levels of government must rise above political and personal interests to avoid a humanitarian and economic catastrophe

The rains did not come. In earlier times we would have been blamed the gods; today we blame others — national government (they should have planned for this), provincial government (they are not doing anything), local government (they didn’t see it coming and responded too late), wealthy people (they use too much water), capitalists (they are greedy), poor people (they are too many and should leave Cape Town), tourists (they don’t save water like locals), politicians (they are corrupt/incompetent). National and local government blame each other, provincial government blames national and local, the poor and wealthy blame each other. We are reluctant to accept an uncomfortable reality.

For a moment at least, I ask you to step back from this blame game and explore with me the facts and what can and should be done. The water situation in Cape Town is both uncomfortable and serious. It will require all of us to accept discomfort and to make a contribution to avoid a human and economic catastrophe.


Cape Town is experiencing a drought that is more severe than any previously recorded. There have been three consecutive years of low rainfall. Rainfall in 2016 and 2017 were each individually the lowest rainfall recorded in the last 100 years.

Cape Town’s climate is variable, with wet and dry years. Global climate forecasting models show that Cape Town is likely to experience more drier years and fewer wetter years. Average rainfall is likely to decline but a scenario in which it does not rain again or in which it only rains at or below the 2017 rainfall is unrealistic.


The Department of Water and Sanitation is responsible for planning and implementing schemes to supply water to urban areas, for industries and for irrigation. The department plans to supply water that is sufficient to cater for a one in fifty years drought event. The department planned to augment Cape Town’s water supply system in 2022.

The drought currently being experienced by Cape Town is variously estimated to be between a one in two hundred years and a one in one thousand years event and is therefore much more severe than what was provided for in the planning.

There is an appropriate debate to be had about planning and the extent to which climate change has been factored in. This is important but will not help us get through the current drought.

Short-term responses

The appropriate immediate response to a drought of this kind is to restrict usage. Winter rainfall runoff in 2017, the lowest in recorded history, provided 260 million cubic metres of water into the dams supplying Cape Town, equivalent to 700-million litres a day. Cape Town’s emergency augmentation programme will provide less than 50-million cubic metres of water up to the end of June 2018, that is, less than one fifth of the lowest recorded annual rainfall contribution.

It is not possible to build new water supply capacity at scale and within the required time frames to alleviate the short-term impacts of the drought.

The idea of building temporary large-scale desalination capacity is a costly diversion — it is not possible to build substantial desalination capacity in time to make a material difference to dam levels this summer. Temporary desalination costs more than seven times as much as treated water from Cape Town’s dams and at least three times as much as efficiently procured permanent desalination.

International expert opinion is unequivocal — building temporary desalination at any scale is not an appropriate solution to the drought crisis being experienced in Cape Town as it will not provide substantial water in time to make a difference this summer and the cost would be exorbitant.

Managing the water in the dams by severely restricting withdrawal and use

Cape Town will get through to the next winter rains if and only if the releases from the dams are strictly controlled and use restricted.

Agriculture has used 40 of its 60-million cubic metres restricted annual allocation one month into a five month peak irrigation period (December to April) and releases made by the department to agriculture will have to be stopped well before the end of the growing season. Cape Town has been using about 600-million litres a day (down from a peak of 1 200-million litres a day) but must now use less than 450-million litres a day to achieve its target.

This will be difficult, but it can and must be done through a combination of increasingly uncomfortable measures — punitive tariffs, flow restrictions and pressure management. Cape Town has no choice but to pursue all of these measures aggressively.

Farmers, residents and businesses are all deeply unhappy with these restrictions, however, there is no alternative. Empty dams and the consequential human and economic catastrophe of unimaginable proportions must be avoided.

Achieving these twin objectives of severely reduced agricultural and urban use will require a concerted and co-operative approach by all parties — government, business and civil society, together with public leadership of the kind that is, unfortunately, not yet in evidence. Blame is not useful and public leaders in all three levels of government need to step up to the challenge.

New water supplies

While developing additional supplies of water will not make a material difference to dam levels during this summer, these are very important reduce risk during next summer and beyond. Cape Town is implementing plans to develop ground water resources and to build permanent wastewater reuse and desalination capacity at an appropriate scale cost-effectively. The City must not let the emergency detract attention from accelerating these initiatives. They would be wise to learn lessons from the excellent renewable energy procurement programme and make use of the skills and capacity of the unit that managed this process.

Financial implications

Cape Town water tariffs are volume based. This means that if usage is halved then the tariff must be doubled to maintain the same revenue. Only about 14% of water costs are directly related to the volume of sales (raw water purchases, chemicals and electricity). So a 50% reduction in sales results only in a 7% reduction in costs (though in practice this is less).

At the same time, providing 300-million litres a day of additional capacity through reuse and desalination will increase annual costs by about R1.6bn, increasing water expenses by about 50%. On top of this, the progressive block tariff structure meant that last year the city earned R1.5bn from (mostly wealthier) domestic customers consuming more than 20 cubic metres a month (about 50% of its water revenues).

But consumption above 20 cubic metres is banned. Wealthy customers adhering to the restrictions are using much less water and are paying a fraction of what they were previously. At the current tariff levels, all customers using below 30 cubic metres per month are subsidised.

This is not sustainable and major adjustments are required. This burden should be shared equally by customers and property owners — a catastrophic failure of Cape Town’s water system would wipe out property values. Three major adjustments are needed: the immediate introduction of more punitive tariffs for consumption above 50 litres a person a day (necessary to achieve the 450-million litres a day target), an increase in the property tax to support the transition to a more resilient city (and to avoid the catastrophe), and a restructuring of the tariff next financial year to make it more resilient to drought shocks and to support sustainability.

If I were the president of the ANC, I would request national government to make a contribution to support this transition and to lesson the impact on the poor.