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What We can Learn from South Africa's Drought

by Jodi Lucas

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‘The year is 2019 and Cape Town has become the first major urban center to run out of water’ - It’s hard to believe that this could have been the headline splashed on the front of newspapers across the world. Thankfully, the city of Cape Town has narrowly avoided this disastrous state, but this doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear just yet. Here’s what you need to know about the drought and what this city did to prevent Day Zero.

video sourced from http://www.capetown.gov.za

Cape Town is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, attracting an average of 1.5 million foreign tourists each year. It is easy to see why; here a vacation can go from mountain hiking to ocean safaris, forest exploring and luxury wine tasting all in one day. But, this year the scenery has been a little different.

Bone dry corpses of long-dead trees lay beside scorched rocks, and white-hot ground stretches as far as the eye can see. I'm not describing a desert here, this was the state of the Western Cape’s biggest water reservoir which was left with only a trickle of water after a three-year drought that stripped it from its usual 480bn-liter capacity.

As the summer sun scorched on, Cape Town’s residents braced themselves for Day Zero (which was set for April 22nd). The price of bottled water tripled and grocery stores looked like a set for a post-apocalyptic film with bare shelves and customers hauling trollies filled with 5-liter water bottles to save for the date that the city’s water would be cut. In just three-years, residents had more than halved their daily water use, from 1.2bn-liters to just 500m-liters at the start of 2018, overshadowing efforts in other drought-prone regions, including California.

Water saving methods by locals:
water saving infographic

Infographic sourced from Western Cape Government

In 2017, Cape Town was voted the best city in the world, by mid-2018 it has taken on the title as one of the world’s most water-resilient cities. Here are just a few of the preventative measures taken to avoid becoming a dry city:

  • A daily limit of 50-liters or less per person whether at home, work, school or elsewhere was implemented. Baths were forbidden, showers limited to 2 minutes or less per person, and forget about watering the garden.
  • Agricultural users needed to reduce usage by 60%
  • Residential units using excessive amounts of water were fined or had water management devices installed on their properties.
  • Hosing down of paved surfaces with municipal drinking water became illegal.
  • Washing of vehicles, trailers, caravans or boats with municipal drinking water became illegal.

Water saving tips for tourists:

Despite the city being declared a disaster zone, the Cape Town is still open for business and tourists are encouraged to visit the region as it helps keep the economy afloat. It is still possible to have an epic vacation here but sustainable travel should be at the forefront of every visitor’s mind.

So, if you’re visiting the mother city then here a few things you can do to help us make every drop of water count.

  • Cut your showers down to one minute.
  • Collect shower and basin water and reuse it to flush the toilet.
  • Don’t leave your taps running while you brush your teeth, soap up or shave.
  • Invest in plenty of hand sanitizer
  • Embrace dry shampoo
  • Buy bottled water instead of drinking tap water
  • Keep your clothes fresher for longer by giving them a light spray with a solution of vinegar, water and fabric softener.
  • If it’s yellow, let it mellow. Constantly flushing toilets can use up to 7 gallons of water with each flush.  That’s 7 gallons of clean water being put to waste!

Silver Linings and Solutions:
Dried up dam

After suffering the worst drought in recent history, Cape Town finally got a dose of much-needed rain with flash floods that hit the city in April. Unfortunately, this was followed by weeks of no rain and the city remains vigilant about preserving every drop of water.

In the midst of the crisis, there have been a few brilliant solutions put forward to push day zero further away, one of the most ambitious is to drag an iceberg down into the Western Cape from the Canary Islands.

The coming of winter is welcomed as this is supposed to be the rainfall period, but the long-term predictions for rainfall in the south-western Cape remain uncertain and water supplies remain at high risk.

The Importance of Sustainable Travel:
Green heart

Although Cape Town may have become the first urban city to run out of water, it is not alone in the crisis. Despite the fact that 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only 3 percent of it is fresh and each year drinking water is becoming more scarce. Major cities such as Sao Paulo, London, Miami, and Mexico City are in danger of running out of water.

The crisis that many of the world’s countries face is a result of climate change and one way that we can all help is by traveling sustainably and reducing our impact on the planet. This means making simple choices that lessen the negative impact on a given destination. 

So, if you’re planning on getting away for the summer, then here are a few ways to make your vacation more eco-friendly:

  • Book non-stop flights wherever you can and consider doing so with airlines who offer carbon offset programs. Although this may cost a bit more, it has much less of an impact on the planet as takeoffs and landings create most of an airplane’s carbon emissions
  • Support hotels and accommodations that have taken on sustainability initiatives like solar power, rainwater harvesting, and low-flow toilets
  • Take a BPA-free water bottle you can refill over and over again.
  • Walk, bike or use public transportation to get around whenever possible
  • If you’re going on a hike or spending time on the beach, take along a small bag and pick up any trash you see
  • Ditch the plastic and take along your own reusable bag when you’re shopping.
  • Travel with responsible tour operators, especially when you’re going on a wildlife safari


Looking to make your travels a little greener? Then check out these epic Eco-friendly Safaris in Africa.

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