Cape Town, South Africa, is currently suffering under the worst water shortage in the city’s history. Despite residents and businesses operating under tight water-use restrictions, officials are predicting that remaining water suppliers will run out in June. The current crisis is the result of a three-year drought coupled with a growing population. Although it is overly simplistic to state that this current emergency is the result of climate change, on a global level there is an undeniable link between drought intensification and atmospheric warming.
As the impacts of climate change intensify in the coming years and decades, scientists predict that the frequency and intensity of droughts will worsen. As a result, more cities will likely be faced with water shortages similar to that in Cape Town. Water scarcity is largely a local issue and the global trend of urbanization is concentrating massive populations on small areas of land with finite water resources. Some of the world’s largest metropolitan areas are highly vulnerable to this increased risk, including Jakarta, Bangalore, Cairo, and Sao Paulo. Cape Town’s experience gives insights into what will happen in other cities as climate change intensifies water shortages.
How Will Cities Cope?
Cape Town’s strategy has centered on gradually implementing constraints on water use. City residents are currently limited to 50 liters of water per person per day and can be fined for exceeding that threshold. The surrounding region also faces restrictions. Farmers have been told to cut use by 60%, drastically limiting the amount of crops that they can grow. While these constraints have been painful, they have also been essential to making the city’s supplies last as long as possible. Reduced water use from the agricultural sector has successfully pushed back Cape Town’s ‘day zero’ several months already. Implementing restrictions steadily over a period of time has proven effective. This is particularly important for businesses and farmers, who need more advanced notice to adjust to limits. Companies in water sensitive regions should stay apprised of the water situation so that they have time to adjust.
The second part of Cape Town’s plan will activate on day zero, if and when aquifers run out. The city will shut off taps and residents will need to pick up 6.6 gallons of water per day from one of 200 distribution sites. Some businesses are helping their employees prepare, implementing remote work policies and other continuity measures.
One of the most striking aspects of Cape Town’s crisis is how economic status is playing into the consequences. Many of those who can are leaving the city, or at least making plans to do so. If day zero arrives, it is now clear that the poorest residents will face the worst of the resulting hardships. This will be a major factor in other droughts, as it will be with the impacts of climate change in general. While governments must play their part, companies should also identify their most at risk employees and provide them with extra protections.