January 18, 2018

Concerns are growing over a worsening drought that is leading to severe water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa. Local officials warned in January 2018 that Cape Town could reach "Day Zero," when the city's water resources are depleted, as early as April 12, 2018*; however, various measures are expected to be implemented to mitigate the shortage before this date. The local government began instituting basic water rationing Jan. 8 and has a six-step, phased approach for such restrictions that will likely be implemented as water scarcity increases.

Though media reports regarding Cape Town's decreasing water supply have increased in recent weeks, the drought has been ongoing since 2015. Authorities first declared a drought disaster in May 2016, and conditions steadily worsened in 2017 into 2018. Several factors are contributing to the current water crisis in Cape Town. These factors include ever-increasing demands on the city's water supplies due to increasing commercial and agricultural use, as well as a growing population; a backlog in water infrastructure maintenance, resulting in water loss during distribution; the proliferation of invasive species, which have greater water needs than indigenous plants; and the impact of climate change, including increasing temperatures and evaporation rates, and decreasing rainfall. Cape Town's seasonal rainfall usually occurs between May and August, making replenishment prior to the feared Day Zero in April unlikely.

As of Jan. 15, the combined water level of Cape Town’s major dams (Berg River, Steenbras Lower, Steenbras Upper, Theewaterskloof, Voelvlei, and Wemmershoek) is approximately 28.7 percent – this figure equates to at least 15 percent less water than on the same day in 2017, demonstrating the declining replenishment from seasonal rains. Water rationing, by way of advanced pressure management and supply limitation, is ongoing in Cape Town. The city also implemented Level 6 water restrictions as of Jan. 1, 2018. Under these restrictions, “all non-residential premises must ensure that their monthly consumption of municipal drinking water is reduced by 45% compared to the corresponding period in 2015 (pre-drought).” Failure to comply with this restriction will constitute a Water By-law offense; the accused will be liable to an admission-of-guilt fine, as well as the installation of a water management device(s) at the premise, at their own cost.

To help mitigate the effects of the drought, the city aims to reduce the amount of municipal water currently used by its residents, as well as secure alternative water sources. These projects include the use of treated effluent water, the development of new desalination plants at the Cape Town harbor, Strandfontein, Monwabisi, and V&A Waterfront, and increased groundwater abstraction in the Cape Flats and Atlantis.

If mitigation efforts are not sufficient, current estimates indicate that Day Zero will fall on April 12, 2018*, when combined water reserves will decrease to approximately 13.5 percent. At Day Zero, authorities are expected to turn off almost all the city’s taps and implement intensive water rationing. The city will enter Phase 2 of its Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan, whereby residents will have to collect a maximum allowance of 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of water per person per day at one of 200 possible water collection sites. Many properties – both commercial and residential – will be unable to access drinking water during this phase; however, strategic commercial areas, high-density areas at risk of disease outbreaks (e.g. informal settlements), and critical services (e.g. clinics and hospitals) will still be able to receive drinking water through normal (albeit monitored) channels. Should dam storage levels drop below 10 percent, the city will implement Phase 3 of the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan. This will entail full-scale disaster implementation, with a focus on minimizing the impact of water shortages on human life, dignity, and property.

Though many residents are aware of the ramifications of the drought, protests are possible over the perceived government mishandling of the situation, especially by opposition parties. Protests may take place with increasing frequency as Day Zero approaches, especially if water rationing measures are seen to be ineffective or unfairly maintained. Demonstrations are most likely to occur around City Council officers in central Cape Town, but cannot be ruled out elsewhere. While most events will probably remain peaceful, clashes and localized disruptions are possible.


  • Undertake a Water Audit to determine how much water you use and what items and/or processes utilize the most – this will allow you to efficiently address any unnecessary water usage (either through new business practices or maintenance checks), as well as support efforts to reduce your monthly water consumption.
  • Ensure that your employees are aware of any Water Audit results so that they can understand and internalize any resultant water conservation measures.
  • If your business or organization has a garden, sports fields or a swimming pool, you can use a borehole or well water to offset your municipal water usage. Using this water is free; however, all boreholes and well points must be registered with the City of Cape Town and must display official signage clearly visible from a public thoroughfare.
  • If you are unable to install a borehole or well point at your premises, greywater (water from sinks, bath, and hand basins) or rainwater can be used to offset municipal water usage. Please note that all properties where alternative, non-drinking water resources are used must display signage to this effect clearly visible from a public thoroughfare.
  • Flexible work schedules may need to be implemented to accommodate water collection(s) during rationing.
  • Store 5-10 liters (1.3-2.6 gallons) of municipal drinking water for essential use.
  • Avoid any protests that occur during periods of intense water rationing; monitor local media for updates on any protest activity.

*As of time of publication, Day Zero was estimated to fall on April 21. Since publication, local officials moved up Day Zero in Cape Town, South Africa from April 21 to April 12. Previous references to April 21 as Day Zero have been updated to reflect the new estimated dated of when the city's water resources will be depleted.

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