The future is ‘water stressed’: A deep dive into South Africa’s water crisis

South Africans are dealing with water woes as government tries to resolve the issue. File picture: Pexels

South Africans are dealing with water woes as government tries to resolve the issue. File picture: Pexels

Published Mar 17, 2024


South Africans are currently grappling with a number of different water issues to the extent that it could be a water crisis.

A particularly precarious situation as the country feels the effects of climate change, an ongoing El Niño, and what it feels to be a long period of hot weather across the country.

This is especially noteworthy as the average rainfall for the country is about 450mm per year. This falls below the world average of about 860mm per year.

As a result, our water resources are scarce and limited to an extent. In global terms, South Africa is classified as “water short” and may be moving towards “water stressed”.

South African dam levels over the years

The dam levels, sometimes also referred to as water storage levels, have fluctuated a lot over the past 10 years.

In March 2014, national dam levels were at nearly 90%. In March 2015, they were nearly 80%.

By March 2016, national dam levels plummeted to around just over 52%. There was some recovery seen in March 2017, with dam levels being around 72%.

March 2018 saw a notable increase with 84% and March 2019, was just over 72%

In July 2020, the South African government said the national dam levels were looking “fairly stable at 69%” and in mid-March 2021, average dam levels stood at around 85%.

In mid-March 2022, the average national dam levels were around 93% and then according a department of water and sanitation report in 2023, the overall storage capacity of the country’s water level at at 94.4%.

Dam construction

Between 1964 and 1994, the South African government constructed 18 new dams that could store approximately over 200 million cubic metres of water. Between 1994 and 2023, it only built two such dams.

Since 2014, it has not built any large dams. According to the Water Research Commission, the country has more than 500 government dams in South Africa, with a total capacity of 37,000 million cubic metres.

Cape Town Day Zero

The years 2015 to 2018 saw Capetonians going through the most with a drought that led residents closer to what authorities dubbed ‘Day Zero’.

The dreaded ‘Day Zero’ entailed Level 7 water restrictions, when most municipal water supplies would be switched off and it was believed that residents could have to queue for their daily ration of water.

The drought was so severe that it was believed to only happen in once in 400 years.

In 2018, after three years of poor rainfall, the city announced drastic action was needed to avoid running out.

The City of Cape Town worked to get residents and businesses on board with a host of water-saving initiatives.

A number of restrictions were put in place with residents only being allowed to use a certain amount of litres per day.

People were instructed to shower for no longer than two minutes and “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” was a common phrase that promoted flushing the toilet only when necessary.

The use of recycled water was also encouraged.

The current water situation and how authorities are trying to tackle the water crisis

Residents in the City of Joburg has recently experienced water supply challenges, resulting in ten days with limited to no water.

In Cape Town, authorities have recently outlined a plan to procure more water and encouraged citizens to use less water as Western Cape dam levels continue to drop.

Other cities in the the country have also been affected by water woes.

According to Deputy President Paul Mashatile, the government is working around the clock to resolve the water crisis plaguing major cities including Johannesburg, Durban and other parts of the country.

Mashatile said the government has set aside R20 billion to be given to municipalities to repair and maintain water infrastructure.

Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Thembi Nkadimeng has also been deployed to some of the areas experiencing water shortages, he said.

Mashatile said he was also chairing a war room that is attending to water shortages in the country.

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