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Cape Town Learning Example: Urban Water Supply

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collated by Kate Lonsdale based on the work of Minlei Du


Overview: context and drivers

Cape Town is a water-stressed city located in the drought-prone Western Cape region of South Africa. Most of the city's water supply comes from surface water (97%), mainly from mountainous catchment areas, with only 1.46% sourced from groundwater. Data for 2000 suggested that demand already exceeded yield; many, especially the urban poor, lack adequate access to clean water. Forecasts indicate a 143% increase in the shortfall by 2025 as requirements increase due to population growth, particularly in informal settlements without adequate infrastructure, as well as rising agricultural and industrial needs. While measures can be taken to increase supply or reduce demand, there is little potential to develop major new water projects in the Berg WMA.

Experts predict that climate change will stress Cape Town's water system further. Estimates suggest that climate change will increase demand for domestic and agricultural water by 0.6% per annum in the coming years. At the same time, climate change is likely to reduce supply due to:

  • Increased frequency of extreme climatic events like flooding and drought

  • Increased unpredictability in rainfall patterns, and reduced overall rainfall

  • Lower stream flows from mountainous catchment areas in the Cape Metropolitan Region (predicted to decline by 0.32% p.a. to 2020), decreasing the supply of surface water

  • Decreased groundwater recharge rate

  • Increased evapotranspiration (5-15% by 2050), with increased evaporation from farmland and reduced soil moisture

Water quality may also be impaired, for instance if stream flows decrease, water may become more saline. If adaptive action is not taken, the city is likely to face far greater water shortages which may, in turn, impact population health and well-being, productivity and economic development. But while there is some awareness about the potential impacts of climate change on Cape Town's water supply among politicians and practitioners, there is very little recognition of the need to act now, and even less agreement on the measures that should be taken.

This is the only learning example set in a developing country context. Developing countries are likely to be harder hit by climate change than developed countries, partly because they are more dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources, and partly because they have less adequate human, institutional and financial capacity to facilitate adaptation. They also face far greater social and economic challenges; despite a 4% annual Gross Geographic Product growth rate over the past decade in Cape Town, poverty and unemployment, crime and HIV have been rising, and basic needs such as housing, health services, sanitation, and access to clean water are not being met. Such huge challenges make it all the more difficult for developing nations like South Africa to incorporate climate change adaptation into their planning.

The research project underlying this learning example (Du, 2008) analysed the responses of key local stakeholders (practitioners and experts from national and local government, the university, consulting outfits, and NGOs involved in the water sector and/or climate change) to the potential impact of climate change on Cape Town's urban water supply, using semi-structured interviews and a focus group meeting. The numbers involved were small - 12 interviewees, five of whom participated in the focus group, with a further 3 responses by email - and did not include end-users (householders, farmers, firms), so the responses recorded are not necessarily representative of the broader constituency of local stakeholders. The study also draws on published material and consultancy reports.

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