Cape Town water crisis a stark reminder for drought-prone Australia

Water stress map: creative commons licence

Cape Town’s water crisis is making news around the world, but nowhere should it be ringing alarm bells more than in our neck of the woods – South East Queensland. It’s not that long ago since the Millenium Drought (2001-2009) reached a dramatic point in late 2007. Brisbane became the first Australian capital to endure Level 6 water restrictions at a time when the region’s main reservoir, Lake Wivenhoe, dropped to 15% capacity.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the town water crisis is so parlous that taps were to have been turned off on April 16, but conservation efforts by the city’s 4 million people has pushed this out to June 4. Cape Town introduced Level 6 restrictions last month. Reports from the South African capital sound a bit like conditions in South East Queensland, circa 2007-2008.

The so-called ‘Day Zero’ – when water in Cape Town’s six reservoirs drops to 13.5% – means taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue at standpipes for daily rations. (Think dystopian movies like Young Ones or The Worthy).

A news report this week described a sudden sharp shower in Cape Town (10mm or so). People were said to have rushed out of restaurants, bars and shops just to feel the rain on their faces.

Residents are being encouraged not only to limit their showers but also to have baby baths over the shower outlet to collect the grey water for recycling. As was the case in Brisbane, Cape Town residents are being discouraged from washing their cars and flushing toilets (unless really necessary).

According to our local utility, SEQWater, during our own water crisis in 2007-2008, Brisbane residents successfully halved daily water consumption to 140 litres per person under Level 6 restrictions, which included a ban on filling pools. Gardens could only be watered with buckets (with water collected from those three-minute showers). The motto, ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ was nailed to many a dunny door.

Conditions are tougher in Cape Town, where residents are limited to 50 litres each per day. The Guardian reported that Cape Town’s water crisis was accelerated by a drought so severe it was not expected for another 384 years. Plans to diversify with more boreholes and desalination plants are not scheduled until after 2020. The city’s biggest reservoir, Theewaterskloof Dam, has mostly evaporated or been sucked dry since the drought began in 2015. The shoreline is receding at the rate of 1.2 metres per week, The Guardian reported.

Tucked away in its two-page feature on Cape Town’s water crisis was the colourful but completely unhelpful statement from an un-named homophobic pastor who blamed the drought on gays and lesbians.

Back home, South East Queensland’s water crisis in 2007-2008 ushered in a new era of water management, resulting in the SEQ Water Strategy, which set a water consumption target of 200 litres per day.

SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster says the biggest single change since the Millenium Drought was construction of a 600 km reverse flow pipeline network that allows treated water to be moved around the region. The utility also now has a ‘drought-ready’ strategy which is triggered when storage falls to 70%. Currently the region’s dam levels overall are at 75.9%, so nobody is losing sleep over the average per capita daily water consumption of 184 litres.

Baroon Pocket Dam spillway January 2011, image by Bob Wilson

FOMM wrote in March that water levels at our local dam, Baroon Pocket, had dropped to 46%. SEQWater supplemented the Sunshine Coast through an extended dry spell in 2017. Baroon Pocket Dam is now back to 78% (this photo of the spillway (January 2011) shows what can happen when 750mm falls in one month.

Blame it on climate change if you like, but the Sunshine Coast region has recorded below average annual rainfall in three of the last six years. What really did the damage was an eight-month stretch from July 2016 to February 2017 with an average rainfall per month of only 43mm. Source: Bureau of Meteorology monthly rainfall.

The South East Queensland Water Strategy aims to maintain regional water security into the future through management and operation of a water grid including a recycling facility and a desalination plant.

SEQWater owns and operates 26 dams, 51 weirs, and two borefields, including 12 key dams which supply as much as 90% of the region’s drinking water. Foster says SEQWater is now planning for far worse events than the Millenium Drought.

“Cape Town never thought they would experience more than two failed wet seasons in a row. South East Queenslanders never thought we would experience two failed wet season in a row either.

“But we went through the Millenium Drought and nearly a decade of failed wet seasons.”

Foster says that if SEQ was again faced with a Millenium Drought scenario, the strategies put in place would allow water supply to be maintained with medium level restrictions.

Meanwhile, in far more parched countries

You might feel relieved to learn that Australia was not one of 33 countries identified by the World Resources Institute as facing extreme water stress by 2040. However, Australia is one of six regions facing increased water stress, water demand, water supply, and seasonal variability over the next 22 years.

The top 11 water-stressed countries in 2040, each considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0, are projected to be Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

The 2015 report forecasts rapid increases in water stress across regions including eastern Australia, western Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the North American West, northern China, and Chile.

Nothing focuses the mind on the need to conserve water more than a summer camping holiday in a water-scarce national park. At the Bunya Mountains national park, east of Dalby, bore water is available in the national park camp ground. But it is labelled ‘non-potable’ and visitors are advised to boil and/or sterilise the water before using. We have a 60 litre tank under our caravan and we also take two 10-litre containers as back-up. Even so, after five days the van tank was less than half full and by the time we drove home on a stinking hot Sunday, we were sharing the last few mouthfuls from a water bottle.

Fine, just walk into the Kilcoy IGA and buy some bottled water, right? Maybe not. In Cape Town, supermarkets were forced to introduce a per customer limit after a big run on bottled water.

You may recall I was enthralled a while ago by Ben H Winters’ series, The Last Policeman. This cli-fi trilogy depicts the urban chaos developing as the population wait for the cataclysmic arrival of an asteroid which will destroy the planet.

Winters expertly conjured up underlying tensions between survivalists, conspiracy theorists or escapists who have “gone bucket list” or found easy ways to do themselves in. Then there are those with no particular moral code. As of the policemen in Winters’ second book says: “Just you wait until the water runs out…”

More reading: The 11 cities most likely to run out of water


3 thoughts on “Cape Town water crisis a stark reminder for drought-prone Australia”

  1. As a follow up to the sobering commentary on the word’s 33 most water stressed countries, Leah from Washington-based World Resources Institute (, sent us the full list of 153 countries. Australia is ranked 43rd, with a ‘business as usual’ water stress ranking of 3.55 (the top 11 are at or near the worst water stress ranking of 5). If you are thinking of moving to a more water-secure environment, New Zealand sits in 105th place with a ranking of 0.78. PNG’s not bad either (0.34).

  2. Yes David, that surprised me too. The WRI sent me the whole list today Australia is 43rd! (see comment below). I read an article in the Straits Times that said Singapore imports a lot of water from Malaysia but has advanced plans to enhance future supply and self-sufficiency including recycling and the recently built Marine Barrage (a 10,000ha reservoir).

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