Publication Date February 1, 2018

An urgent crisis of leadership, climate, and water is unfolding in South Africa

South Africa
Dead trees sit inside the Theewaterskloof dam in Cape Town. Photo: Mother Jones

Cape Town is headed for unknown territory. After years of drought, the city of 4 million on the Western Cape of South Africa is facing an unprecedented disaster: Unless a major rainstorm occurs, officials are predicting that on or around April 12 the city’s water supply will run dry. After that, most residents will have to stand in line at designated areas to get their rations of water. 

The crisis has been caused by the intersection of global warming with, as some critics charge, poor planning by government officials. Though the city tried to several methods to prevent this catastrophe, they are preparing for the worst. “We have reached a point of no return,” Mayor Patricia de Lille said in a statement in January. If there is no rain, Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water, but it probably won’t be the last. Thanks to climate-fueled droughts, water shortages will likely become a widespread global problem in the coming decades. 


So, how did Cape Town get to this point? For years, South African government officials have warned the city about its looming problems, especially because Cape Town relies so heavily on on rain to supply its water. With its rainy season typically running from May through September, rainfall has been minimal since 2015 when the drought began. In 2016, the city’s dams were 78 percent full. By 2017, that number had dropped to 49 percent. Today, reservoirs are only a dismal 27 percent full. To make matters worse, the last 10 percent of the water in the dam is unusable.