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Water securityRunning out of water: Cape Town, the U.S., and drought

Published 14 February 2018

The recent news that Cape Town, South Africa—a modern city of nearly 4 million residents (plus over 1.5 million tourists yearly)—was on the brink of running out of water, the taps about to run dry, put water back into the headlines. After years of drought in several American states, could this happen closer to home? “The current crisis in Cape Town will almost inevitably repeat itself elsewhere,” says an expert. “Because of geography, many cities in the United States and the world are highly or entirely reliant on local precipitation. In California, for example, most of the Central Coast, including Monterey and Santa Cruz, currently depend on local rainfall. Given climate change, moreover, droughts in the arid regions of the world are likely to become more frequent and more severe. Warmer temperatures, moreover, will raise evapotranspiration rates—increasing agricultural water needs and the amount of stored water lost to evaporation.”

The recent news that Cape Town, South Africa—a modern city of nearly 4 million residents (plus over 1.5 million tourists yearly)—was on the brink of running out of water, the taps about to run dry, put water back into the headlines. After years of drought in several American states, could this happen closer to home?  In the Q&A that follows, water law expert Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson, Jr. (who has spent time in South Africa, including teaching “South African Water Policy” at the Stanford program in Cape Town in 2015, right as the drought was starting) discusses with SLSBlog our most important resource—water.

SLSBlog: Experts are now predicting that Cape Town will run out of water in May. How did it get into this situation?
Buzz Thompson
: A variety of actors have conspired to put Cape Town in this grim position. To start, Cape Town is in the third year of one of the most severe droughts in the region’s history. Everyone agrees that this is the worst drought in a century. One scientist at the University of Cape Town has even estimated that a drought this bad occurs in the area only once every 300 years. Unfortunately, climate change may be increasing the chances of a drought of this magnitude in the region.

Many cities, however, would have better survived a drought of this magnitude. At least two other factors have helped push Cape Town over the edge. First, Cape Town depends almost entirely on a handful of local reservoirs for its water supply, and all of these reservoirs rely on local precipitation. While many cities have multiple sources of water, Cape Town banks on only one. As any risk expert will tell you, that’s a recipe for disaster.