/ 15 March 2024

It’s dangerous to forget Cape Town’s Day Zero

The Nqweba Dam near Graaff-Reinet has recharged after dropping to 4.98%. (Murat Ozgur Guvendik/Getty Images)

The “Day Zero” drought in Cape Town from 2017 to 2019, when the municipal water supply would be shut off because of water shortages, captured the world’s attention. The limits of water availability suddenly became visible — in particular to middle-class residents in the suburbs who became aware of their water use and had to regulate it to the prescribed 50 litres per person per day. 

This moment also made visible the unequal and intermittent access to water that characterises every­day life for a significant number of the city’s poor and working-class residents. 

Four years later, with Cape Town’s dams sitting in a healthy position of 97.6% capacity as of 17 November 2023, this rupture in water supply is now a distant memory. 

But for those living in the arid Karoo, an area spanning more than 40% of the country, water scarcity has long been part of everyday life. By looking at the town of Graaff-Reinet, and how residents interact with the scarce but life-giving water resources, possibilities for managing water supply and access in metropolitan areas such as Cape Town can be charted.

Water scarcity in dry places has long shaped how people have used the resource. In the Eastern Cape, water scarcity influenced colonial settlement patterns and agricultural and industrial development in the region. This resulted in settlement near rivers, the establishment of dams, and the importation of windmills.

In turn, water technologies such as dams and windmills supported the emergence of sheep farming. 

Places like Graaff-Reinet are vulnerable to drought and water scarcity. For instance, during the height of the Day Zero drought in Cape Town, dams were as low as 13%; in November 2022 the Nqweba Dam in Graaff-Reinet was at 4.98%, largely as a result of evaporation. 

There has been a historical reliance on the construction of dams for farming.

In Cape Town, one of the city’s responses to the Day Zero drought was to tap into the various aquifers and underground water resources. Furthermore, private individuals who had the capital responded by sinking boreholes and buying bottled water in bulk. 

There was a widespread belief that the city had the capacity and resources to avoid Day Zero becoming a reality. But in towns across the Karoo, local governments and citizens interact with water in distinctly different ways. 

When interviewing a local businessperson in Graaff-Reinet in May 2023, it became clear that business owners in the area recognised the lack of capacity of the local government. After the Dr Beyers Naudé municipality amalgamated with the Camdeboo, Ikwezi and Baviaans municipalities in 2016, its inability to address the extended drought became apparent. 

A consortium of business owners, named the Graaff-Reinet Economic Development Forum, was formed in 2016 to assist and cover the shortfalls of the ailing municipality. Soon, the magnitude of the issue of water supply became clear. 

In 2019, after attempting to address waste management in the town, the issue of water, its supply, and over-abstraction became the central focus of the forum.

The life-giving underground water table, on which residents and farmers had relied for more than a century, had become increasingly depleted, without significant rains to ensure its recharge. The Nqweba Dam had significant silting, which was exacerbated by periodic flooding and this had left the dam almost unusable. 

Silt decreases the ability to store water, which threatens water security. 

At a special council meeting held in Graaff-Reinet in May 2023, the discussion centred on measures to increase the capacity of the local municipality. The meeting resolved to significantly increase rates. 

This has led to an increase in the water tariff from R11 to R16 per kilolitre. And it is an increase that is projected to translate into a more than 20% increase in monthly municipal accounts. 

So, in what ways did this response differ from Cape Town’s response to Day Zero?

For some of Cape Town’s residents, the drought was the first time they had to use water sparingly and recognise that it was not a limitless resource. 

For households in the broader Karoo region, saving rainwater and the sparing use of water are common practices. 

But a striking difference in the use of water becomes apparent in commercial agriculture in the Karoo. 

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Rupture: The effects of drought on a sheep farm in the Karoo are evident.

In an interview with a sheep farmer just outside of the town, we became aware of the stark difference between the ecologically sensitive farming practices used in arid regions, and those agricultural practices in the Cape Town area that have historically relied heavily on an uninterrupted water supply. 

Agriculture uses 29% of the available drinking water in the Western Cape.

The Karoo sheep farmer argued that contrary to the narrative that farmers can survive because of their reliance on underground water, it was crucial to recharge the aquifer regularly. Grazing patterns were mostly decided by their effectiveness in stopping erosion and allowing for the infiltration of the little rain the area gets.

These kinds of practices are likely to become even more essential in the context of climate change, where water variability — flooding and scarcity — becomes more pronounced. 

Thinking that has evolved from arid areas such as the Karoo offers insights into the possible futures of metropolitan areas. 

Rather than thinking of water variability as transient, examples such as those taken from Graaff-Reinet can be useful for both the local government and the residents of cities such as Cape Town, where interruptions in water supply are seen as fundamentally temporary and technical issues.

The broader Karoo area further demonstrates that the well-being of humans and nature is co-constituted. 

By adopting such a framework, urban centres could be well positioned to face the growing harmful effects of the climate crisis. 

Dr Matthew Wingfield is a post­doctoral fellow and Steven Robins a professor of social anthropology at Stellenbosch University.