Too little, too dirty, too much, at the wrong time and place: South Africa’s water crisis

South Africa’s ‘looming’ water crisis crashed onto international front pages that day when Cape Town announced it might run out of water. However, many would say a major catastrophe has been hiding in clear sight for decades. We are running out of water. Digging into the details, it’s clear the crisis hasn’t been looming for a long time already. South Africa’s water crisis is here.

Most people might think ‘water crisis’ refers to drought, but in reality it has many faces. It’s the same in many other countries too, but we’ll stay at the southern tip of Africa for the moment – it serves as a very good example of what’s going on in many places. First, let me introduce you to South Africa. Our (it’s my home country too) very make-up helped lay the basis for some of the problems we are experiencing today.

South Africa 101

South Africa is a country of extremes. First, there is the weather. In general, the evaporation of the eastern seas provides generous rainfall, mostly in summer. In contrast, the Benguela current retains its moisture, causing desert conditions in the west. This part of South Africa is mostly semi-desert. A narrow coastal strip in the south receives all-year rainfall in the east and winter rainfall in the west.

The West Coast of South Africa
Along the west coast of South Africa.

However, for the most part, and compared to many places elsewhere, South Africa is largely a dry country. We receive an average of about 464 mm rainfall each year. In comparison, the world average is about 860 mm.

South Africans are a large and diverse group of people in terms of race, culture and religion. We speak 11 official languages, as well as some Arabic, German, French, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. And, we are growing.

Since 2005, the South African population has expanded from 48 million to around 54 million people. More and more are leaving rural areas to seek their fortunes in the city. About 80% of the country’s population is expected to be urbanised by 2035.

We are also marked by extreme inequality. The poorest 20% of the population consume less than 3% of the total expenditure. The wealthiest 20% consume 65%. This disparity is easy to spot. In many areas, suburbs with big yards and comfortable houses are in stark contrast to nearby informal settlements where thousands of people are squeezed into shanty towns.

Once the rain falls, we forget about drought at our peril

South Africans are really no strangers to drought. Years of extreme rainfall are often relieved by times when water is extremely scarce. We are currently experiencing just this.

Until 2012, the country enjoyed 16 consecutive years of above-average rainfall in most of the summer rainfall areas. At that time, the last significant drought was a memory of over two decades old. However, this period of flush water supply masked a number of problems fermenting in the background.

All those people that moved to cities to improve their quality of life, enjoyed improved access to water services in the process. At the same time, the services and infrastructure necessary to provide this deteriorated due to a lack of skills and capacity to maintain it. This situation was aggravated as the population grew, the gap between the so-called haves and have-nots
expanded and poverty rose.

When the next severe drought arrived, as it inevitably would (this article explains why drought happens), crisis hit. By November 2015, five provinces were declared disaster areas. By 2016, several towns and cities were close to running out of water. Livestock numbers plummeted and crops withered. Unimaginable a mere couple of years before, internationally renowned Cape Town announced that it was on the brink of running dry.

Cape Town, South Africa
Could Cape Town ever run out of water? Apparently so…

Though not the only cause, the drought highlighted a major concern to the future development of South Africa. Our water is running out. Unfortunately, drought is only the tip of the iceberg. Our crisis, like in many other places, has many faces. We can sum it up like this: too little water or, too much; water that is too dirty and, available at the wrong place and time.

Too little

South Africans mostly depend on surface water. Typically, we get our water from a network of large dams. Most of this is used to produce food. After the agricultural sector, municipalities use the most water. In third place, the industrial sector follows.

Total water withdrawals in 2014 and 2035, should South Africa continue along the same path it currently is (Source: The Institute for Security Studies)

Already, these three groups are consuming more water than what we have available. Yet all three sectors are set to demand for more in the future. Forecasts by the Institute for Security Studies on long-term water supply and demand in South Africa predict that the gap between water supply and demand is set to grow. Though current water supplies are already almost fully allocated to different users, South Africans will still demand 17% more water than is available by 2030.

Total water withdrawals for all sectors forecasted to 2035 and total water supply, including yield increases from all large-scale water reconciliation strategies (Source: Institute for Security Studies)

Furthermore, this gap between supply and demand will not close; not even if we are able to implement all our plans for more water. Even if we go with desalination and tap into more groundwater, and if we use less water at the same time, we will still run out.

Total water withdrawals, should Water Conservation and Water Demand Management be applied, and total water supply. (Source: Institute for Security studies)

Too dirty

Water pollution in South Africa is rampant, leading to even less suitable water available for South Africans to use. Agriculture, runoff from irrigation, industrial effluent and discharges from mining and human settlements all contribute to our water quality problems.

Industrial pollution contributes to South Africa's water crises
Industrial pollution is contributing to the country’s water crisis.

This is made worse by crumbling infrastructure, lack of skills to fix it, lack of maintenance and failures of local municipal service delivery. Results include partially or untreated sewage flowing directly into the water that South Africans depend on to live, and for our economy to grow.

Too much

Drought is not South Africa’s only water crisis. The country is also often hit by flooding. Perhaps more so than drought, the destructive impact of floods is felt immediately. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure are damaged or destroyed. Precious land is lost to erosion and often, lives are lost.

Apart from the social impacts, floods carry hefty price tags. Following heavy storms and floods in October 2017 in Durban, for example, the eThekwini Municipality announced that the costs to repair the damages amounted to over half a billion Rand.

Wrong time

South Africa’s seasonal rainfall patterns result in many challenges for water supply. Cities like Cape Town, for example, are located in winter rainfall regions, far from other reliable supplies of water but still in need of water throughout the year. The economy of the winter rainfall areas in South Africa thus depends on water kept in storage facilities like dams to last them through the dry summer months.

This has substantial impacts on the ecology of local river systems. The consequences have to be managed very carefully.

Wrong place

The country’s economy is heavily dependent on the transfer of large volumes of water between catchments. Most of the largest engineering feats in the country’s history involve the movement of water from areas where there is more than necessary, to places where there is not enough for development.

The Orange River Project is still one of the country’s major inter-basin transfer projects, and takes water all the way from the Gariep Dam to the Vanderkloof Dam and via the Orange-Fish tunnel to the Eastern Cape and Port Elizabeth. The Palmiet-Breede Pumped Storage Scheme supplies water to Cape Town. Water for the Greater Johannesburg area is transferred via the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and the Thukela- Vaal System.

The climate is also changing

South Africa’s current water challenges will be further fueled by climate change. Considerable warming and drying are projected for the region. This will likely go hand in hand with more extreme weather of greater intensity, including heatwaves, floods and droughts. Under these circumstances the poor and vulnerable, of which there are many in South Africa, are particularly at risk.

This situation calls for new thinking beyond traditional engineering solutions. Research institutions such as the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute believe that the solutions lie where we might expect it least: within our cities.

Could the solution to South Africa's water crises lie in its cities?
Could the solution to South Africa’s water crises lie in its cities?

Could cities be the solution to the South African water crisis?

“Urbanisation is creating an opportunity for doing things differently,” says Kirstie Carden, coordinator for the Future Water Institute. Kirstie says that if we create more water supplies, work more wisely with our water, allocate our water as best as possible, and adapt to water scarcity, we can start to reduce that gap between the water we have, and the water we will need.

Locally and internationally, more people are saying that since so much water by so many people are being used in cities, this is where this work should be done. Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) is hailed as a solution that can help us achieve that. In a nutshell, WSUD is a design approach that integrates the water cycle into the city to the benefit of the environment and the people that live there (but this article explains exactly what WSUD is, and why you should know about it).

The term is applied differently in South Africa. In many areas, we don’t even have basic water and sanitation services yet. So, any development plans here need to take rural and informal settlements in mind.

For this reason, reference to the word ‘urban’ has been removed from the term WSUD here. In South Africa, as defined by the Water Research Commission (WRC), water sensitive design (WSD) is “the integration of water cycle management into planning and design for the growth and development of communities, and is inclusive of urban, peri-urban and rural environments.”

Water supply at Langrug
While not having a running tap at home is a crises for some, it’s an everyday reality for many others.

To design a place according to these principles, means that water supply can include the water we’ve already used, the water that runs down our roads and washes away (stormwater), water underground, and the traditional rivers and dams. It entails delivering universal access to basic services in a way that works with all the water available, is affordable and does not destroy the environment.

Though the potential to use WSD to help resolve South Africa’s water crisis is substantial, it is not without challenges.

Hurdles to a new design of the places we live

Many of these are like the challenges experienced internationally. These include a lack of skills to apply these new concepts, and champions to drive the cause.

Even when skills and champions are present, WSD options are rarely represented in local planning and policies, making implementation difficult. This is often the case because not enough people understand what these techniques, the cost and risk involved, entail.

Throughout the country, however, landmark work has been done to bring WSD to the attention of the right people, to provide training and conduct the research necessary.

Only two examples of institutions that have been supporting WSD for years are the Water Research Commission (WRC) and Future Water. Yet, the idea is not to define an approach that will suit all places. Rather, each city or settlement should have its own vision to work towards to secure water supply, and happy lives, to residents.

Each city will have to walk its own path

What the perfect place to live looks like, varies greatly. It’s a subjective concept but in general it should at least provide for the well-being of a community. Visions would be completely different for any two cities. The different approaches taken in Durban (read about that, here) and Cape Town (Cape Town’s plans are detailed, here) towards becoming more resilient are perfect examples.

What is a livable city? Copenhagen, Denmark.
The definition of what people deem “livable” is vastly different for each city and settlement, from Cape Town to Copenhagen (pictured).

This does not mean that we cannot learn from each other. Every settlement can learn from these examples in order to start or continue their own development towards a livable place.

I’ll talk abut the the generally accepted elements of WSD in more detail in other blogs. These include the so-called ‘new taps’ that we can get our water from. First, there is water demand management and conservation – the one thing that cities that need water MUST do. Then, there is the potential that’s being washed away with our stormwater. Rainwater harvesting, the use of ‘dirty’ water (like greywater and treated effluent) and groundwater are all included.

If you want to see how it is being applied already, have a look at what they are doing in Singapore.)

The message in general though, is that all settlements and cities can already apply some of these concepts. The first steps in any settlement’s journey towards becoming a livable places to the people that call them home, are already very possible.


  • This article is an excerpt from a book on Water Resilient Cities that I wrote for the Water Research Commission. It has much more detail than this blog, and you can get it for free, here.
  • The blog is also part of an ongoing series tackling the problem of how we will live with less water available to us. The first article looked at how cities developed, and what went wrong. The second, looked at a new concept of development that can help solve our water problems (it’s an overview of WSUD and the concept of a ‘livable’ place).
  • Though municipalities use a lot of water in South Africa, the largest user, as is the case in many other countries, is still agriculture. A valid question would be how we tackle savings there. I will dig into the details more in future, but to start, here are (according to my research) the two ultimate tips of what to eat to save water, and the planet.


  • A water sensitive urban design framework for South Africa, by Lloyd Fisher-Jeffes, Kirsty Carden & Neil Armitage
  • Equity and efficiency in allocating water in South Africa – Challenging attitudes, changing behaviours, presentation, by Dr Kirsty Carden, Future Water research symposium 2017
  • Fieldnote – managing droughts and floods, lessons for municipalities, published by the WRC and the Water Information Network of South Africa
  • Parched prospects II. A revised long-term water supply and demand forecast for South Africa, by Steve Hedden, published by the Institute for Security Studies
  • South Africa Yearbook 2015/16

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