Skip to main content
log cape2 head

Cape Town May Become the First Major City to Run Dry – But It Might Not Be the Last

If we do not act to end climate change, other cities are likely to find themselves in crises similar to the current situation in Cape Town.


Imagine turning on the kitchen tap one morning and nothing comes out. No water at all.

It’s an unnerving prospect that could still become a reality for the citizens of one of Africa’s largest cities. Cape Town, South Africa, was on the brink of having its water taps turned off. After years of drought, population growth, and lax enforcement of water restrictions, the popular tourist city was very close to running out of water.

But the incredible moral and environmental challenges ahead in Cape Town don’t end there. Because if we do not act to end climate change, other cities are likely to find themselves in similar crises.

Why? For one, we know that climate change increases both the frequency and intensity of drought across the planet. As global average temperatures continue to climb, scientists expect to see more drought. Plus, when droughts occur, they’re likely to last longer than usual. And while climate change alone is not fully responsible for Cape Town’s water crisis, it almost certainly has made the situation far worse.

“Climatic envelopes are shifting and most regions of the world already have slightly different climate characteristics than they did 30-40 years ago. This change is going to accelerate even more in coming decades,” says Shravya K. Reddy, Climate Reality’s former director of science and solutions. “Older climatic and weather patterns no longer can be taken as an article of faith, and one must look at climate change projections to better understand current and future trends.”

Reddy now lives in Cape Town, and is a principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development, where she drives the growth of the organization’s climate adaptation and mitigation, clean energy strategy and policy, and low-carbon development efforts across Africa and the developing world.

“What do all these model projections and studies tell us? There is overwhelming evidence, and has been for years, that this region will receive less rainfall over time, including marked reduction in the main rainy season, and will become more drought-prone,” she continues. “Thus, even if one discounts or ignores all other factors, we know that for Cape Town, climate change means less rainfall, more aridity, and more drought.”

“In light of that knowledge, I think it is safe to say that the fingerprints of climate change are palpable in the way this drought has played out. Some have said that this is Cape Town’s worst drought in a century, and thus it was hard to predict it would get so bad. To the contrary, climate science tells us that what would be one-in-100-year drought will now become more frequent, and occur multiple times in a century. That the gaps between drought years will shorten over time.”

Climate Facts: Cape Town Drought

Cape Town is about to run out of water – but this does not have to be the new normal. #ClimateChange (via Years of Living Dangerously)

Posted by Climate Reality on Thursday, January 25, 2018

These impacts – declining annual precipitation, climbing temperatures, longer periods without rainfall, drier soils, and shrinking water levels in rivers and reservoirs – are not unique to South Africa. Indeed, climate-exacerbated drought is a major and growing threat to the long-term water security of towns, cities, states, and nations around the world.

Poor More Likely to Suffer During South Africa’s Dire Drought

In the southwestern United States, Arizona, California, and Nevada are all facing strains on their water supply because of a years-long drought.

“As soon as 2019, the water level in Lake Mead on the Colorado River could drop below an elevation of 1,075 feet. That will trigger mandatory cutbacks in water diversions from the reservoir under an agreement negotiated between the federal government and three lower-basin states that rely on the river,” News Deeply writes.

For the people in this corner of the US, this could translate into major conservation efforts and eventually water shortages, as it did in then-drought-impacted California in 2015.

The Golden State instituted water conservation rules that banned using drinkable water to wash off sidewalks or driveways, prohibited watering a lawn within 48 hours of measurable rainfall, and forbid restaurants from serving water unless customers requested it. While these rules were the most common, each local water department set their own. And it’s easy to see that if the drought had continued to worsen, more-severe restrictions may have followed.

In Syria, a major climate-related long-term drought – said to be the Middle Eastern nation’s worst in 900 years – was an “important driver of the initial unrest” that contributed to the destabilization of the country as it descended into a civil war that has claimed almost half a million lives, displaced nearly 7 million people, and created 4.8 million refugees.

And now, in South Africa, a major metropolitan area of about 3.7 million people came close to “Day Zero,” when it almost ran out of water.

“For now it feels like the biggest focus is on getting through the remainder of this year. The next step is to somehow ensure that the city has functional, reliable, secure, and effective systems in place to ensure that when Day Zero hits, people will still have access to their 25 liters a day,” Reddy says. “This means testing out water distribution points, communicating to people where these points are, how one can access them, what security measures are in place to manage conflict or crime that may arise over scarce resources, and how the city will ensure that no one is able to abuse the system and take advantage of it to get more than their allocated share.”

Food and Water Security and The Climate Crisis: What You Need to Know

Reddy says South Africa is working to ensure new and additional water is made available to the city. A new dam is in the works, a previously unused underground water aquifer is being tapped, and desalination plants are under construction. But many of these projects are behind schedule – and none are expected to be operational until the second half of the year at the earliest.

“Whatever can be done to ensure water is brought to Cape Town, it must now be done, even if costs are high,” she says, even if that means “shipping or trucking in water from other parts of the country, [or] paying other countries with more technical experience in such matters to build accelerated desalination plants.”

But these are short-term solutions to a lasting problem.

“Several other parts of the country are suffering drought conditions too,” Reddy adds. “They have not reached the situation Cape Town has, but this is a red flag for them to act now, and to take stronger measures now to prevent this level of crisis for them next year or the year after.”

Are you ready to make a difference for the future of Cape Town and places like Puerto Rico, Texas, and California, as they continue to recover from climate-related extreme weather events?

At Climate Reality, we’re working to accelerate the global shift from the dirty fossil fuels driving climate change to renewable energies like wind and solar, so we can power our lives and economies without destroying our planet. Will you join us?