The very first capital city in the world to run out of water was the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. That situation, apparently caused by a free-for-all on the agricultural production of qat, has led to massive humanitarian crisis and a civil war*. As it stands today, the second capital city to run out of water will be Cape Town. In March.
*See yesterday’s post.

Cape Town is already in Phase 1 of its disaster plan. In Phase 2, the army will be deployed to oversee the water collection points to be set up throughout the city. Phase 3 kicks in when the city runs out of water (presumably in March?).

According to Cape Town’s mayor, Patricia de Lille:

The severity and duration of this drought could not have been predicted. As a city, we are managing the situation with absolutely every drought intervention that we have at our disposal.

That was preceded by:

“Due to the impacts of climate change and reduced annual average rainfall as we have again seen this past winter, the City of Cape Town has adopted a scenario called the New Normal where we are no longer only relying on rain water to fill our dams for our water supplies.

The New Normal means that as a permanent drought region, we have to change our relationship with water as a scarce resource and augment our supply with alternative non-surface sources.”

“Climate Change?”

Here is a graph of rainfall in Cape Town:

Cape Town rainfall

Here’s what we should note:

  • There was significantly above-average rainfall four seasons ago (ie. 2013/2014).
  • It’s the last three seasons that have not been great (and the most recent has been, by far, the “least normal”).

And here’s my question: is Climate Change really something that *suddenly happens* in three years?

Which is the time frame that we’re talking about. The dams were last at full capacity at the end of 2014:

Cape Town dam levels

Which makes me wonder whether the politically-expedient issue (the drought) isn’t just masking the real problem of indequate urban-planning.

A Water Requirement Equation

Here’s how to calculate how much water a city needs:

(Population x Daily Water Requirement per resident x 365 days)


(Water Required By Agriculture and Industry)


Total Water Required

In the 2011 Census, the population of the City of Cape Town was 3.7 million people. According to a Western Cape Government survey in 2016, that number is now just over 4 million.

In that same survey, the number of households with piped water access increased from 1.02 million in 2011 to 1.26 million in 2016. That’s an extra 262,000 homes.

When you add those numbers to that earlier equation, you have a rapidly expanding water requirement for residents.

And that’s before we start looking at the massive increase in the number of visitors to Cape Town (who, I guess, would fall under that “industry” part). More than five million people visited Cape Town in 2016. That’s a lot of extra baths, showers and flushed toilets to throw into the mix.

All of which sounds a lot like a supply problem.

The problem with having a Water Supply problem

The trouble with large-scale water projects is that they:

  1. Are expensive; and
  2. Have long lead times.

Which means that you have to plan quite far in advance. And if you get it wrong, then it’s not so easy to just *fix it*.

Here are some 2007 projections from 10 years ago

This is from the Department of Water and Sanitation, mapping out a strategy for the Western Cape Water Supply System.

Western Cape water supply and requirement reconciliation

And here’s a comment that accompanied the graph:

The system is currently in surplus due to the completion of the Berg River Dam (2006/07). Without the successful implementation of the WC/WDM measures as set out in the City’s WDM Strategy, and with high growth in water requirements, this surplus would only be adequate to 2017.

That is: back in 2007, that “high-growth requirement curve” predicted that Cape Town would start running out of water in 2017. But if the City could do some work on its demand management (ie. those WC/WDM measures), then it might be able to push that out to 2020.

Those measures were things like:

  1. Encouraging behavior change in water users;
  2. Charging high tariffs for over-usage;
  3. Fixing leaks.

According to the initial document back in 2007, this would push back the required date for a new “water resource augmentation scheme” to about 2020. Under normal rainfall conditions.

So where does this leave Cape Town?

Well, it looks like Cape Town has relied almost entirely on “water conservation and demand management” to solve its looming water shortage. It imposed level 1 water restrictions as the standard norm, as well as many of those other WC/WDM measures. And it saw some good results – somehow managing to reduce water consumption at a time when the city was growing. Which is, you know, great.

But it also left the metro quite vulnerable.

Let me give you an analogy:

  • Both Jane and Laura must drink at least a bottle of water a day to survive.
  • Laura likes to drink 2 bottles a day – but Jane has economised, and only drinks 1 bottle.
  • Laura keeps 6 bottles in the fridge, just in case she can’t make it to the shop for three days.
  • Jane keeps only 3 bottles in the fridge. Because she has “managed her demand” and only needs 3 bottles.
  • The shops go on strike for 5 days.
  • Jane dies.

It is a fine thing to conserve water. But if you plan your storage capacity on the back of your new levels of consumption, then you’ll come unstuck sooner than your water-guzzling neighbours.

And isn’t this what happened?

Cape Town was already acting as though it was in a drought, even though it wasn’t. Then someone in the water planning department went “Oh, we can delay the plans to increase the water supply, because it turns out that we actually don’t need that much.” So when the drought arrived, the water restrictions were far more painful than they could have been.

The bottom line: surely we should be planning the water supply infrastructure on the back of standard water requirements, and not “new normals”? Otherwise, we’re not planning for the worst.

We’re just hoping for the best.

So bring on the desalination plants.

And quickly.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and sometimes things that are only loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at Also, check out the RA podcast on iTunes: The Story of Money.