Is Cape Town safe? Everything you need to know about the water crisis

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel conteststipsseries or news.

Today (February 9, 2018): Travel news: Is Cape Town safe? Everything you need to know about the water crisis.

This article is constantly updated with new and relevant information.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you know that Cape Town is my favorite city on earth. Blessed with magnificent beaches, spectacular mountains, rolling hills of vineyards, breathtaking drive,s and tons of trendy bars and fine dining restaurants to choose from, it is hard to imagine a more picture perfect tourist destination than South Africa’s Mother city. Combine this with some of the best accommodations on offer anywhere in the world and you are left with one of the hottest cities you will ever visit. However, Cape Town is currently facing its biggest crisis ever since it’s set to become the first major city in the modern era to run out of water. After three years of relentless drought in the Western Cape province, Cape Town is beyond the point of no return and the city’s water supply will be turned off on July 9th (‘Day Zero’) according to the latest estimations. What will happen next is a major fear, both for the city’s nearly four million citizens as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit Cape Town each year. These are the key questions and answers that you need to know when you visit Cape Town in the near future.

  • How did this happen?
  • Could this crisis have been prevented?
  • What is the current situation in Cape Town?
  • How are tourists affected?
  • What will happen in the near future?
  • Should I cancel my trip?

Why does Cape Town run out of water?

The water crisis in South Africa’s Mother City didn’t happen overnight of course. It’s the dramatic result of an extreme drought that has been battling the region for the past 3 years. While summers in Cape Town (November to March) are constantly dry and warm, winters (June to August) are usually wet, but El Nino – perhaps exacerbated by climate change – has affected the seasons and the past 3 winters were unusually dry, dwindling down the six major water reservoirs (known locally as ‘dams’) that feed the city. For example, Theewaterskloof Dam – which provides more than half the water supply for Cape Town – is almost depleted with less than 25% of the reservoir remaining as demonstrated on the following images by the NASA:

In addition to extreme drought, overpopulation has contributed to the problem as well. Over the last two decades, Cape Town’s population has grown by 80%, while water storage only increased by 15%, straining the city’s existing water reservoirs.

Could this crisis have been prevented?

While the cause of the problem is clear, it’s surreal that one of the wealthiest cities in Africa finds itself in this position. Many in the city are angry with officials and the government that they didn’t see this problem coming. But could this crisis have been prevented? Yes and no.

No one expected this extreme dry spell to happen. Dr Wolski from UCT’s Climate System Analysis Group says that this kind of drought occurs only once in 311 years. Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental and Geographical Science Future Water Institute goes even further and labels the drought as a once-in-a-millenium event. Yes, despite the undisputed rare character of the phenomenon, the current crisis demonstrates that the city was (and still is) ill prepared to deal with water shortage, which is especially shocking since the Western Cape province is a water-scarce environment. This is a remarkable and uncomfortable truth, given the fact that city has recognized the water treat over the past 20 years and that it took measures to reduce water use from its six reservoirs, by reducing water leaks, forcing large users to pay more, by shaming top water users by publishing their names, and promoting water efficiency. Cape Town even won several international water management awards, but despite that, officials made two big mistakes: they failed to adapt the local water supply to the demands of the fastly growing metropolis and they did not take into account the unlikely scenario of 3 consecutive dry winters. In addition, Cape Townians themselves are not without blame since more than half of residents ignored until very recently water restriction recommendations despite officials urging citizens to consume less.

What is the current situation in Cape Town?

As of 1 February 2018, the city council implemented tight water restrictions, lowering the daily allowance from 87 liters (23 gallons) to just 50 liters (13,2 gallons) of water per person. This is less than a third of the average daily water use in Europe and less than one-sixth of what the average American uses. To put things in perspective, 50 liters (13,2 gallons) is about the amount of water it takes to shower for 5 minutes or to flush the toilet 5 times a day.

The South African published guidelines what you can do with 50 liters (13,2 gallons) of water a day:

  • Take a 90 second shower (18 liters)
  • General hygiene, washing your face, brushing your teeth, etc … (3 liters)
  • Cooking (2 liters)
  • One flush of the toilet (9 liters)
  • Drinking (2 liters)
  • You must be clever to use the remaining 19 liters of water. For example, even the most eco-friendly washing machines use huge amounts of water, more than 40 liters a go. It is recommended to save on your flushing water by recycling water from your shower, hygiene and washing up.

Although 50 liters a day is not impossible, it does rise the tension and introduces some panic in the city. After a run on bottled water last month, supermarkets introduced limits for each customer. The crisis also underscores that Cape Town is one of the most unequal cities on earth, with extreme differences between the very poor and the very rich. The rich are digging boreholes — private wells to reach water in the aquifer – while the poor are waiting in lines daily to fill up water containers.

How are tourists affected?

So far, tourists don’t notice a lot of the water troubles. Some people are even unaware of the problems until the pilots tells them of the current water crisis upon landing at Cape Town International Airport. While all hotels, bars and restaurants remain busy, you will notice some minor changes, such as the taps in the toilets being turned off (with customers being asked to use hand sanitizers instead) and swimming pools being filled salt water. Visitors are also asked to be sensible and not wasteful, and to adhere to the same restriction of 50 liters (13,2 gallons) of water a day that applies to all Cape Townians (e.g. showering for no more than two minutes). Cape Town’s foremost hotels have also started implementing other water-saving measures. For example, the Taj Hotel has switched off their jacuzzi facilities and all steam rooms in their spas. Hotels of the Tsogo Tsun group have installed aerators and flow restrictors on taps as well as low-pressure heads on showers, and reduced the frequency of replacing linen and towels. 

What will happen in the near future?

The city’s officials plan to cut the taps (and thus supply of fresh water) when the reservoirs hit 13.5 percent. That day – known as ‘Day Zero’ – was originally calculated to be 21 April 2018 but has been pushed back to July 9th following rain and the implementation of water-saving measures across the city and the surrounding region. On Day Zero, engineers will close the valves to about a million homes and the city will set up 200 collection points across the city, where residents can stand in line and collect the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 liters (6 gallons) of water daily under armed supervision of South African National Defence Force and South African Police Service.

Cape Town’s City Council has opened a Disaster Operations Centre (DOC) as the situation is now at a disaster level. The head of the DOC is drawing up a plan he hopes he never has to implement. “We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” says Greg Pillay in an interview with The Guardian. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 years in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis”. This nightmare scenario is more likely than you may think. In fact, law enforcement, police and time restrictions have already been placed at city springs after fights broke out last week.

That said, it’s not all misery since officials also take into account two more optimistic scenarios in which Day Zero could still be averted:

  • For months, Cape Townians have been urged to consume less water, but more than half of residents ignored those volunteer restrictions. However, with the new restrictions of a water limit of  50 liters (13,2 gallons) per person per day, the fear of Day Zero has gripped Cape Town, and the number of inhabitants consuming less water is on the rise. The hope is that with this increased conservation, the city’s water reservoir may last until at least July when the rainy season should hit the area but experts say there’s no way of knowing when it will begin and when the drought will end.
  • In addition to reducing water consumption, the city – which is surrounded by the South Atlantic Ocean – is quickly examining other water alternatives, including drilling into the ground to reach aquifers and building four temporary desalination plant to convert saltwater to fresh water. The plants will start producing water in March, but probably not enough to avoid disaster as unfortunately, most of the city’s efforts to source alternative water sources are way behind schedule (you can track their progress here)

Should I cancel my trip?

So far, no foreign government body has warned against travel to Cape Town, so there’s no reason to cancel your trip. In fact, you cannot cancel a plane ticket or a holiday without penalty at present: airlines and tour operators are implementing their normal terms and conditions.

If conditions in Cape Town were to deteriorate after Day Zero, airlines and tour operators may offer the chance to postpone your journey, to switch destination, or to get a refund if the situation becomes dramatic.

Personally, I would not book a trip to Cape Town right now since it is quite uncertain what will happen after Day Zero and whether officials will be able to cope with the situation of social unrest. In case you have already booked a trip, you may find yourself in a stressful position since the dire situation in Cape Town doesn’t sound like a place to spend a relaxing holiday right now. However, always keep a back-up plan in mind:

  • Consider visiting another part of South Africa that is not affected by the drought. For example, there are no problems along the famous Garden Route, a region of splendid natural beauty which can be easily reached from Cape Town by car.
  • Consider switching destinations by flying from Cape Town to Namibia, a country blessed with some of the most stunning scenery on earth, such as the dunes of Sossuvlei and the natural wonders of Etosha National Park. Although Namibia is mainly a desert country, large-scale desalination are already in place since decades and drinking water is not a problem. Both Windhoek, the capital, and Walvis Bay (serving the adventure centre of Swakopmund) can be reached by a direct flight from Cape Town.

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  1. You forgot to mention Durban as another beautiful part of SA to visit. In my opinion, its far better than CT. The warm Indian Ocean to swim in. Beautiful beaches… sunshine all year round.. palm trees and rolling sugar cane fields that go on forever. The beautiful Drakensburg mountains. The valley of a Thousand Hills.
    Home to the Zulu warrior nation. Steeped in history as old as the hills. Take a drive aling the South Coast, The wild Coast. Home of the Bunny Chow.. Cape-town is overrated in my opinion. Durban is a place of Adventure. Not too mention AMAZING Game Reserves… diverse in all wildlife.

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