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Come to Cape Town for a #dirtyweekend

The shortage of water in Cape Town brings an abundance of innovation.

Come to Cape Town for a #dirtyweekend


“Come to Cape Town for a #dirtyweekend” was one particular marketing idea tabled at a recent tourism meeting about water that had me in stiches. A more down-to-earth, genius notion was to ask tour operators who travel daily outside of the drought area, to return each day with 100 liters of drinking water, to offer help to accommodation places like BnB’s, Hotels, guesthouses and backpackers where the guests are returning to.

Water “war rooms” and action meetings are popping up all over the city and concerned tour operators and accommodation places are meeting regularly to offer mutual support, positive reinforcement and water saving ideas.

Let’s rewind a little, and explain exactly what is going on here in Cape Town.

Cape Town was founded as an official city by Europeans in 1652. Since then, it has grown as a city and a destination. The main plumbing supply to the city was built around 1949, when the city started formalizing housing and sanitation (these are really loose dates, but the gist of the matter is, the pipes are old).

The City’s water system is a complex one, but in a nutshell the supply for Cape Town’s Water is supplied by 6 large dams: Theewaterskloof dam (Supplying roughly 41%); Wemmershoek Dam;  Steenbras Dam (Gordon’s Bay); Voëlvlei Dam, Berg River Dam and other smaller private dams. The six major dams provide roughly 99.6% of the water needed for the city, and the private dams roughly 0.4%. The Dams are filled by rivers, and predominantly by rain water. Unlike other parts of the country like Johannesburg, In the Cape we enjoy a “Mediterranean Climate” which means it rains in winter (May, Jun, July, August) and is dry and Hot in summer.

The shortage in water can be attributed to a number of factors coming together at one time:


Changing weather patterns (also known as bad luck! And possibly linked to global warming – but I’ll not go there!) have meant that the annual rainfall Cape Town usually enjoys (around 608  mm per annum) has not come in three years, and has been steadily dropping since 2012 already. There has not been enough rainfall into the “catchment areas” where the main dams are located. The first real disaster winter was 2015 when the total annual rainfall fell to 403mm – meaning the dams were not filled up again after the winter period.

According to a great article on Capetownetc (see link below) Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) part of UCT, have been mapping rain fall (mm) since 2012 and the comparative graph is clear: it has not rained enough since 2015 (in the catchment areas) to meet demand.

What is frustrating to note, is that is has rained a mere few kilometers from Cape Town, but since this happens to be out in the ocean, the rainwater is not being caught. The Cape has experienced two such cycles before: from 1930 – 1933 (four years) and 1944 – 1949 (6 years). The major difference then, was the number of people relying on the water.


Cape Town is and remains a beautiful place. The population in the last 6 years alone has grown around 10% - from 3.7million in 2011 – to around 4.01 million in 2017. Education and healthcare as well as unemployment are prioritized and the natural beauty makes it a huge attraction for foreigners too. As the population grows, so does their demand for a clean healthy water supply.


Many news articles have cited the mis-management of water resources as a political problem, and while I shall not engage on my thoughts of the ruling party in the Western Cape, I shall point out some of my own thoughts on the matter of political mis-management. When I started my first business in 2007 (a Backpackers hostel called 33 South boutique Backpackers) we experienced one year (2008) of Electricity Black-outs due to insufficient electricity on the grid. The city was put on a “load shedding” schedule, and at pre-determined times, our electricity would go off (up to 10 hours a day). Again, in 2014, we had a year of Load shedding. Some businesses went out and over-capitalized on expensive electricity generators, and had proud “We are open during Load-shedding” signs in their windows. Other businesses (like restaurants) took the opportunity to invite guests to enjoy Candle-lit dinners in times of no power. Come 2015, and power-outages are a thing of the past. I’m glad, at that point in time we didn’t buy the generator!

Other cities (such as Durban) have survived a drought by water rationing: cutting off the water supply. Cape Town cannot do this as the pipes are so old, that turning on the supply again would mean burst pipes all over the city.

The Cape is experiencing a drought - yet other parts of the country are experiencing floods. Building a pipeline or supply-chain to the city, or investing heavily in desalination plants is not impossible but requires immense capital reserves. Remember the generator analogy? There is no way of knowing whether it will or will not rain this coming winter. This leads me to my last thought.


Water source is like an investment: it is not wise to have all your eggs in one basket. If the two things we learn through this terrible drought is to diversify water and save water, I am happy. I believe that investing in rainwater-harvesting; desalination, (limited) ground water extraction alternatives in the public and private sector will avoid day Zero in the future.

The city has already made the following investments into alternative water supply: set up 200 water stations, where citizens can collect 25 liters per day per person (servicing up to 4 000 000 people a day!); Tapping into the cities aquifers (an underground water reservoir, which, along with the Table mountain aquifer will deliver around 80 million liters of water a day). There are currently 3 desalination plants being built, and will hopefully be online by March 2018.

Being from Germany originally, it was always strange to me that we flushed drinking water down the toilet. By flushing with buckets, and sticking to a 90 second shower, I have realized the need for every household and business to re-invest in their infrastructure and make use of a grey water system. Each person living in or visiting the Cape Town area is required to use no more than 50 liters of water a day: at home, in the gym, at the office – this amount is the total amount. This is not only possible, it is crucial that we all pull together and save water. Radio, newspaper, billboards and more remind us this is crucial to avoid “Day Zero.” Day Zero is the estimate date at which there will be no more running water out of our taps. There will be water for every citizen, but it will have to be collected from shops, water stations, boreholes etc.)

While there may not be enough water in the dams, rainwater harvesting is an excellent alternative for water usage other than drinking. Last week for example it rained a few hours (around 7mm) and at my home, we were able to collect over 1000 liters of water.

What Once in Cape Town is doing to combat the drought:

1. Finally (grudgingly) we have invested in a borehole to extract groundwater from 80 meters below us, and supply the property and restaurants with water. We held out until the 11th hour, in the hope there was a city alternative. However, our building offers employment to almost 100 people (full and part-time) and the possibility of not being able to keep jobs was the final straw.

2. We have rainwater harvesting tanks connected to drains, we use these to water the plants at Yours Truly and UPYOURS bar. 

3. Since 2016 we have had buckets in our showers, we use this water to clean the rooms and flush toilets

4. We have brought our taps to a trickle, and encourage guests to wash faces and brush teeth sparingly with drinking water available free from reception

5. We are researching disposable, recyclable cutlery and crockery for the kitchen to avoid washing up

6. We change sheets for every new guest (obviously!). However, if you are staying for an extended period, we change your sheets every 7 days, or on request. This has had a noticeable effect on our laundry water usage.

The water crisis has opened our eyes to the reality of the world: things are changing rapidly and we must adjust accordingly. Human nature emerges in times of crises, and I can see people all around me offering help and assistance. Should tourists still visit the Cape? Of course! What we don’t need or want right now is a mass exodus of people, resulting in unemployment and additional stresses on our community. Plus, we need as many people as we can muster to do a mass rain dance for rain this coming winter!

Read more about the “new normal” and how to save water on our blog HERE.

References: news/cape-town-shocking- rainfall-2012/ current-seasons-rainfall-in- cape-town/ documents/sa-rainfall-in-2015- the-lowest-on-record--saws SouthAfrica/News/drilling-on- cape-flats-aquifer-starts-as- cape-town-dams-dry-up-in- drought-20180111 SouthAfrica/News/watch-live- drone-footage-of- theewaterskloof-dam-now-168- full-20180111 SouthAfrica/News/city-of-cape- town-confident-about-safety- of-desalination-plants- 20180202 za/opinionista/2018-01-22- from-the-inside-the-countdown- to-day-zero/#.WoKosWaB3nU