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Cape Town’s Water Woes: An uncomfortable parable on climate change

Cape Town, the beautiful South African coastal city from which I write, is grimly counting down the days until it runs out of water.

“Day zero,” as it’s called here, when reservoir levels reach the critical level of less than 14 per cent, is currently thought to be May 11, merely weeks away.

On that day, when four million people go to turn on their water taps or showers, or flush their toilets, nothing will happen. The local government is in crisis mode and has said it will truck in water and set up 200 water distribution points, where residents can go every day to use public toilets and collect meagre rations of 25 litres apiece (that’s less water than a two-minute shower if you have old fixtures). If we’re doing the math, each collection point would service just under 20,000 people. If that sounds apocalyptic to you, you’re not alone.

It is as if someone set out to write an alarming allegory portraying civilization’s troubled future if we don’t soon change course. 

To me, it sounds like a parable about climate change. At the core of the problem is an historic three-year drought driven by climate change, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that the story of Cape Town has uncanny similarities to the story of climate change globally, complete with what threatens to be an uncomfortable ending.

“Day zero,” when reservoir levels in Cape Town reach the critical level of less than 14 per cent, is currently thought to be May 11—merely weeks away.

Scientists have been saying for years that this day might come, but the political response has been completely dysfunctional. Local officials have ignored the warnings against allowing urban areas to rapidly become denser. When it became clear the drought was serious, they were loath to impose hard limits on water use, especially with agricultural and tourism interests lobbying hard against them, arguing that they would be bad for business. State officials accuse the national government (ruled by an opposing party) of underfunding critically needed water infrastructure. Even when it was clear that crisis was pending, the national authorities increased the Cape’s agricultural water allotment.

If they shock the rest of us to action, Cape Town’s woes may end up having some redeeming value.

Some Cape Town residents took the warnings seriously and conserved, but most didn’t. They either didn’t know about the issue, didn’t think it was their responsibility to do anything, or didn’t believe that things would ever really get bad, and so they went about their business drawing down the reservoirs.

There are staunch deniers, who even now claim the whole thing is a hoax and believe the water will not run out. There are overdue and inadequate adaptation measures (the collection points, emergency attempts to set up desalinization). And there is the frightening prospect of a rending of the social fabric if the crunch actually comes, with the poor and marginalized being the hardest hit.

To anyone that deals with climate policy, it’s all uncomfortably familiar, as if someone set out to write an alarming allegory portraying civilization’s troubled future if we don’t soon change course.

In that sense, if they shock the rest of us to action, Cape Town’s woes may end up having some redeeming value.

Aaron Cosbey is a Senior Associate at IISD and a development economist whose work focuses on climate change and energy, trade and investment law and policy, subsidies and green industrial policy. He is currently in Cape Town, South Africa at the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba to present draft guidance on local content policies for the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development.