Where did all the Water go ? -The Cape Town Drought

Where did all the Water go ? -The Cape Town Drought


Its official South Africa, Cape Town has been declared a DISASTER AREA!!! Not because bombs are falling from the sky or terrorists are threatening the country but because of something most of us take for granted every day…. WATER.  As of the 14th of March 2018 new funds and resources will be used to alleviate the water crisis.

I never thought that sharing the shower with a bucket and using the washing machine water to water the plants outside would become the norm. Given all the publicity in the media I think Capetonians including myself have finally grasped the severity of the matter, however let’s get to the facts and see what it’s all about.

I have unpacked the 5 most important points.


Climate Change

Alien Vegetation




So what exactly is a drought? Drought is a departure from the average climate of a region and represents moisture limitation resulting from below-average rainfall, high temperatures, or both. Its impact on the community depends on its strength but also on its length. Over Southern Africa, the recent period (since 1970) is characterized by strong inter annual rainfall variance. In particular, countries experienced more extreme and more widespread droughts. A typical time-scale for farming droughts is the season (3 to 6 months) when the shortage in rainfall results in damage to crops. Hydrological drought is related with precipitation shortage on a longer time scale (12 months to 2 years or more) and the effect it has on surface or subsurface water supply.


On Average 90% of Southern Africa is characterized by semi-arid to arid regions due to the type of climate and thus droughts are a common phenomenon, however, is this common phenomenon becoming too common? Mediterranean-type ecosystems are home to a large amount of the world’s plant biodiversity found on five continents, yet covering only 2% of the world’s land area. They contain 20% of all plant diversity on earth. These wet winter and dry summer ecosystems have been identified as being threatened by further climate change.  This comes from a prediction of increased and regionally acute drought.  Particular concern is the winter rainfall region of South Africa, home to the very diverse and endemic (meaning only found in that area) Cape Floral Region. The CFR, comprising primarily the fynbos and succulent karoo biomes, contains over 9000 species of vascular plants of which 68% are endemic to the region.

Local wetland suffering from the drought with lower water levels than usual.


Droughts have important ecological and socio economic effects and so consequently many studies have been done to investigate their causes, consequences and possible mitigation techniques. Climate change frameworks present that there will be a rise in the amount of significant climatic events including droughts; this will be particularly evident in the lower part of South Africa which is the winter rainfall region. This will be brought on due to pole-ward withdrawal of precipitation bearing frontal systems. All this means to put it plainly is that the clouds that bring the rain have dropped further south and so are not hitting the main land as frequently as they use to. Co-incidentally a similar cause was recorded when California went through a drought in 2012 and it was linked to Climate Change. The results show that anthropogenic warming (meaning climate change being caused by humans) has increased the likelihood of co-occurring temperature and rainfall conditions that have historically led to drought in California.

Climate Change

The worlds’ water cycle is expected to change in the 21st century because of combined effects of climate change and increasing human involvement. In a warming world, the water holding volume of the atmosphere will increase, resulting in a change in the frequency of rainfall extremes, raised evaporation and dry periods and thus more extreme droughts. It is expected that there will be an increase of drought conditions across the world and in particular in most parts of South and North America, large parts of tropical and southern Africa, the Mediterranean region, Southeast China, and Australia; little change or reduced occurrence of drought conditions will be found in northern Canada, Northeast Russia, the Horn of Africa, and parts of Indonesia. It is said that the next world war will not be politically driven, because of terrorism or over land it will be because of a lack of water and by this paragraph above you can understand why.

A water pan in the northern suburbs of Cape Town which is normally full of water year round with a variety of bird life has become almost barren.


These are shrubs and trees that have been brought from other places around the world such as Australia and North America. Just one individual foreign species especially trees suck a huge amount of water possibly as much as hundreds of liters a year out of the earth whereas an indigenous (local) species do not. These aliens have expanded their range and grow in large dense strands. Some examples of alien vegetation in South Africa are Port Jackson (Acacia saligna), all Pine species and Rooikrans (Acacia cyclops).

 Gardens therefore should be filled with indigenous shrubs and trees to alleviate higher water usage.  They are more adapted to the drier environment, coping far better with less water.  They attract indigenous birds and insects which encourages healthier eco systems.


Leaking taps can lose on average 30 liters of water per day. This is why fixing leaks in your garden irrigation systems and pools before the summer season is so important as well as toilets and taps inside the household. All these fixtures to your home may at some point waste water and ultimately if unchecked will cost a lot of money. If you have had your pipes checked recently don’t forget that the City of Cape Town have decreased the water pressure which may also cause leaks in some of the older or weaker pipes in your home. If you see a burst pipe in the street or anywhere outside your home, report it to the municipality.

Over population

They state that with 7 billion people living on the planet the demand for water outweighs the supply (in 1997). An average of 12 – 14 million South Africans live without access to clean drinking water while a further 21 million have insufficient sanitation.

 Take home message

Droughts are becoming more frequent and threatening all over the world. These 6 points are some of the main reasons that there is less and less water available for not only human usage but for animals, birds and indigenous plants. In order for us to secure fresh water for the future we must limit wastage as much as possible, be more conscious of how much water you use even in areas which are not going through drought. You may be thinking at this stage, I’m alright Jack there’s a desalination plant opening up soon or already in place and there’s plenty of water in the ocean! This is true but at the end of the day who’s going to pay for their construction and maintenance bills…. we are. So wouldn’t it be easier to save and conserve the water we have on land rather than paying large sums of money for desalination plants and drilling schemes. A few tips that could make a difference are plants more indigenous plants, replacing water thirsty grass which looks bad when it dies anyway. Putting bark on your garden beds to hold the moister in. Adding stones and pebbles and less vegetation can also help (look at picture below)   Buying water saving shower heads will cut water consumption down and make the little water we have left go further.


Garden using water wise plants,bark and pebbles help save water and looks more aesthetically pleasing than dead grass does.


The real change will come from changing our mindset to becoming less dependent on water i.e. dry toilets, etc. and becoming ‘greener’ in our day to day living.




Anonymous, 2018. Day Zero pushed back to June, as drought declared a national disaster. News 24: March 2.

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Felix, J. 2018. Drought officially a national disaster. Cape Argus: 1, 2, March 14.

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Prudhomme, C., Giuntoli, I., Robinson, E.L., Clark, D.B., Arnell, N.W., Dankers, R., Fekete, B.M., Franssen, W., Gerten, D., Gosling, S.N., Hagemann, S. & Hannah,D.M., Kim, H., Masaki,Y., Satoh,Y., Stacke, T., Wada, Y and Wisser, D. 2014. Hydro-logical droughts in the 21st century, hotspots and uncertainties from a global multi model ensemble experiment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(9) 3262-3267.

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West, A.G., Dawson, T.E., February, E.C., Midgley, G.F., Bond, W.J., Aston, T.L. 2012. Diverse functional responses to drought in a Mediterranean-type shrub land in South Africa. New Phytologist, 195(1):396-407.

Wolski, P. 2018. How severe is Cape Town’s drought? A detailed look at the data. News 24, 1 January 23.

8 thoughts on “Where did all the Water go ? -The Cape Town Drought

  1. Really interesting stats on leaks Braden as those are so easily ignored for long! And something so easily fixed. Thanks

  2. HI Braden, congrats on the blog.

    I would also add ineffective planning, non-responsive public policy-making and poor political leadership. The lack of potable water in Cape Town is as a result of the coalescing of all these factors. It formed a perfect storm.

    I agree, we need to take charge and change our water use habits asap!

    1. Hi Selwyn
      Yes, a lot of factors may have caused the problem but now we need to pull together and save what is left.

    1. Dear Jona

      Thank you very much for your support, I’m glad that you are benefiting from my information.
      Regards Braden

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