Theewaterskloof dam looks more like a desert. Dust swirls where water should be. The photographs of this place have become the dominant image of the drought in South Africa’s Western Cape.
The dam is at less than 13 per cent of its capacity, and summer isn’t over yet.
Irrigator Keith Bradley has spent his life in this valley. He’s seen good seasons and bad, but nothing like this.
“We are now in our third year of below-average rainfall. Dramatically below-average rainfall for the past three winters. And it’s really last roll of the dice now,” he says.
Irrigation directly employs more than 4000 people here. Many more rely on it indirectly. Apples, pears and other crops are irrigated with water from the dam.
But water allocations have been cut to give more to the residents of nearby Cape Town. Mr Bradley says that’s having a significant effect on farmers.
“It’s huge. There has been a lot of finger pointing and accusations going left and right. All I know is that in our community we are obeying the water rationing. We have been cut by 60 per cent,” he says.
Without significant rain, Cape Town will hit ‘Day Zero’ on July 9.
The date, pushed back from June 4, is the day the dams drop below safe levels and the water supply to much of the city will be cut off.
Residents will be forced to queue at 200 water distribution points across the city. They will be limited to 25 litres per person per day.
Western Cape Environment Minister Anton Bredell says while some critics have dismissed Day Zero as alarmist, the disaster is real.
“We have started with the concept of Day Zero, to get a kind of urgency to our public, to understand we do face a crisis if they don’t work with us,” he says.
“Obviously when you face a drought, you need to reduce your consumption first of all, and for that, we need the co-operation of our public.”
Residents are already restricted to 50 litres of water per person per day. The city has managed to halve its daily water consumption, but supplies are still running low.
Mr Bredell says the world is looking on as Cape Town risks becoming the first modern city to run dry.
“It’s funny that now that it hits Cape Town, there is awareness. One of the challenges will be to keep the awareness,” he says.
“We need to keep the sustainability in the long term. Climate change is real. I think that message has landed. And I think it is now, how we as government are going to work with the private sector to protect our resources going forward.”
The government is examining a range of long-term measures, including desalination and utilising aquifers. It’s even seeking Australian advice on how to deal with the problem.
“The question we are grappling with – and we are sending a task team to Australia to learn from your side also – is how do you create sustainable cities? And what do you need for cities to be sustainable, resource-wise,” Mr Bredell says.
Pressure on rapidly urbanising Cape Town
The Collins family is doing its best to save water on the home front. Melchoir Collins spends part of his weekend travelling to a nearby natural spring to gather water. He’s been doing it for months, to ensure his household has its own supplies when Day Zero hits.
“It does take a toll on your back and your strength … but we regard ourselves as very fortunate, because a big portion of South Africa’s population are poor. Don’t have transport, let alone access to spring water,” he says.
Rebecca Collins, 10, is already a committed water saver. Her parents have taught her to take care of the invaluable resource.
Rebecca is hopeful the drought will end soon.
“Well, I worry about it. I think it will last a few years, but I don’t think it will last forever and ever and ever,” she says.
Rebecca is urging children in other cities learn from what his happening in Cape Town.
“I would tell them to save water. Because, we didn’t know that a drought would come here a few years ago. So, it could happen very easily to other places of the world.”
Cape Town is not only battling a changing climate, but also a growing population. Thousands of people from rural areas continue to arrive in the city in search of jobs.
“We are getting bigger and bigger. Cape Town is the most rapidly urbanising city in South Africa. People are voting with their feet to come here. This is where they see the opportunities to be,” City of Cape Town Alderman JP Smith says.
Mr Smith is hopeful the city will be able to avoid Day Zero if it continues saving water. But, the battle isn’t over yet.
“That Day Zero date, if winter rains come in June, we will be fine. If they come as late as August, we might still be in trouble,” he says.
In addition to more than 3.5 million residents, Cape Town attracts more than one million tourists each year.
Tourism makes up about 7.5 per cent of the local economy. Mr Smith says the message to visitors is simple.
“We are well on top of the crisis. Please do come. The worst thing you can do now, in the middle of a disaster is to have a disaster where you compound your problems,” Mr Smith says.
“So, we ask people, please do come, but when you are here, just try to save water like a local.”