Cape Town, South Africa is in the throes of a years-long drought that could earn it a truly alarming distinction: the first major city in the developed world to run out of water.
South Africa as a whole is experiencing its worst drought in a century. The six dams that supply Cape Town’s water have dropped to just 15.2 percent capacity of usable water, according to the Los Angeles Times, down from 77 percent in September 2015. Enforcement of strict water restrictions – which cut permitted daily consumption from 87 liters per day to just 50 liters – begin 1st February.
Shravya K. Reddy, principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development and Climate Reality’s former director of science and solutions, lives in Cape Town and says that while several factors – including relatively rapid population growth, poor planning, and people ignoring previous water restrictions – have all contributed to this crisis, officials’ failure to recognize the role that climate change plays in exacerbating drought has made the situation even more dire.
“Decision-makers well-versed with climate science would have taken it seriously and would have started treating this drought, even in 2015 or 2016, as if it would last longer than usual,” Reddy tells Climate Reality. “Instead, they seemed to never escalate the preparations for additional water supplies or accelerate water augmentation projects in the belief that taking drastic action would be overkill, since the rains would come. If they had taken more concerted action two years ago or early last year, then they would not need to be on such war footing right now.”
Climate change worsens drought because as temperatures rise, evaporation increases. When this evaporation happens over land, soils dry out. Many places are also experiencing both decreases in annual precipitation and longer periods without significant rain, resulting in reduced water levels in streams, rivers, lakes, and (importantly) reservoirs. When rains do come, much of the water runs off the hard ground and is carried back to the ocean before it can fully replenish dams, reservoirs, or the water table.