Climate change strikes Cape Town

Cape Town, South Africa

By Bridget Anderson

The increase in climate change related humanitarian disasters shows no sign of abating in 2018 as Cape Town in South Africa prepares for a severe water shortage following three years of drought.

Cape Town is fast approaching ‘Day Zero’ – the day when the city will run out of drinking water. Estimates currently put that date as 9 July this year – which has been pushed back from April as a result of a successful drive to reduce daily water consumption across the city.

It is currently compulsory for residents to use no more than 50 litres per person per day – a ration which will be slashed by half to 25 litres once the city’s taps are turned off on Day Zero. For comparison the average water use for a person in the UK is 150 litres per day.

Three temporary seawater desalination plants are currently being built around the city to provide safe drinking water for when Day Zero arrives.  From Day Zero Cape Town’s 4 million residents will have to queue for their daily ration of water at one of 200 collection points.

Day Zero marks the moment when the six dams that service Cape Town fall below 13.5 per cent capacity (water below the 10 per cent line is not drinkable). The current level is of the dams is around 24 per cent. In 2014 the water levels in the dams were at 87.9 per cent.

According to the South African Weather Service, two of the driest years ever recorded for Cape Town since observations began in 1921 have occurred in the last 3 years: in 2015 when 549mm (21 inches) fell and 2017 which is the driest year on record with an annual rainfall of 499mm.

Climate models show that Cape Town will face a drier future as rains become increasingly unpredictable in the coming decades.

Claims that Cape Town’s water crisis emanates from mismanagement appear wide of the mark. Cape Town has distinguished itself internationally for its efforts towards environmental sustainability – in 2008 being described as one of the top ten green cities in the world by a New York based business ethics and social responsibility think tank, the Ethisphere Institute.  In 2015 Cape Town received further recognition for its comprehensive programme of water conservation and water demand management aimed at minimising water waste and promoting efficient use of water – a programme started in 2007.

Climate change is not just causing water shortages in Cape Town – this is an international problem facing cities elsewhere.

In Kenya major towns and cities are facing water crisis following a prolonged dry spell. In the country’s capital, Nairobi, some residents have not received water through their taps for months and are forced to buy expensive bottled water. Athi Water Services Board, which manages water resources in various urban areas, has noted that 75 per cent of Nairobi residents do not get regular supply of piped water.

Ghana’s Acccra has also suffered recurrent water shortages for years as reservoirs fall to critical levels in the dry season.

At the same time, in Latin America millions of Brazilians have also seen their water rationed because of prolonged droughts with the capital Brasilia forced to declare a state of emergency last year because of water shortages.

2017 was the second hottest year on record, just behind 2016. The past twelve months have seen massive floods sweep across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, killing thousands of people and leaving millions of people homeless whilst at the same time powerful hurricanes have caused loss of life and widespread destruction in the Caribbean and southern US.

These disasters are caused by climate change which has already taken place. Global average temperatures have already increase by 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. The international scientific consensus is that global temperature rises need to be kept below 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic consequences for humanity. Yet on present trends the world is set for 3.4°C of global warming by the end of the century – a scenario which would see some nations under the sea and enormous displacement of peoples as significant sections of the world become uninhabitable.

The worst effects of climate change are (and will continue to be) experienced in the global south – in countries that do not bare the historic responsibility for causing climate change and yet are paying the highest price in the increasing frequency and severity of climate change caused disasters.

Yet the West – where the historic responsibility for causing climate change lies – the pace and depth of action to stop climate change is not remotely sufficient to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C. A decisive shift from burning fossils fuels to renewable energy is urgently required – requiring a confrontation with Donald Trump, Theresa May and the EU, in opposition to their ongoing commitments to burn carbon intensive oil, gas and coal.