Cape Town’s Water Crisis

“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”–Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

I took some time between assignments in South Africa recently to document Cape Town’s water crisis and was struck by what I found. Here one sees the cracked, dry bed of Theewaterskloof Dam–the largest dam in the South Africa’s Western Cape water supply system. The dam, which usually supplies Cape Town and its population of over 4 million people with 41% of its water, is now at critically low levels. Last year, Cape Town announced plans for “Day Zero”, when the municipal water supply would largely be shut off, potentially making Cape Town the first major city in the world to run out of water.

While “Day Zero” has now been pushed off till 2019, the water crisis is still dire and local residents are adapting their lives to deal with it. Below are some images capturing life in Cape Town and its outskirts during this unprecedented time period.

Capetonians line up with their water containers at the Newlands spring in a suburb of Cape Town. The spring, whose water is supplied by nearby Table Mountain, has flowed without interruption since record keeping started in South Africa, but has only recently becoming a critical collection point. Because of rising water costs and tight restrictions on municipal water usage, local residents come to the spring to fill up on the clean mountain water they use primarily for drinking and cooking.

Family outings to fill up on spring water are commonplace as collection is limited to 25 liters a visit so families may come to the spring as often as two to three times a week.

A woman washes clothing in a shallow bucket of water in Asanda Village–an informal shanty town settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town. Many of Cape Town’s poorer residents have pointed out that their communities–where residents don’t generally own washing machines, dishwashers and swimming pools–are not the ones using large amounts of water and yet are being penalized more than the wealthier communities where many residents have put in expensive boreholes (wells) and are thus skirting water restrictions.

A man walks across an empty public swimming pool–closed due to the water crisis–in the West Ridge district of Mitchell’s Plain on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Signs from a public relations campaign to decrease the University of Cape Town’s water usage are plastered on a university bulletin board.

A public protest in front of the parliament building on South Africa’s “Freedom Day” on April 27th this year included signs protesting the privatization of water. Ironically, Cape Town’s water crisis has been a boon to water privatization with the bottled water industry seeing huge growth in sales and private desalination plants setting up shop on the Western Cape’s shoreline.

As with any crisis, creative entrepreneurs have found ways of making some income from the city’s water crisis. Here, enterprising workers, for a fee, offer to transport heavy water containers from a public spring on Spring Road to residents’ waiting cars.

One of multiple private desalination plants sets up its temporary structure in Monwabisi on Cape Town’s False Bay. The plant, which was erected in a matter of months in reaction to the water crisis and is expected to produce seven million liters of drinkable water per day when it is complete, pulls water out of the ocean 1km out to sea near a popular pool and beach area.

A public mural in Salt River, a suburb of Cape Town, is just one of many artists’ responses to the water crisis unfolding. A street art festival in February of this year offered the prompt “Nature Doesn’t Need Us. We Need Nature” to artists to inspire public art centered on the environment.

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