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Western Cape struggles with worst drought for 113 years

About 14 million people face hunger in Southern Africa because of a drought that has been exacerbated by an El Nino
About 14 million people face hunger in Southern Africa because of a drought that has been exacerbated by an El Nino WFP via twitter

South Africa's Western Cape province has declared a drought disaster and the authorities are making provisions to face the worst water shortage the region has seen in 113 years.


A drought has been sweeping southern Africa for some time now but the situation in the Western Cape is extreme.

“In 2015, we’ve seen the lowest rainfall in a calendar year since 1904,” said Bronwynne Jooste, the spokesperson for the minister responsible for the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape.

But that’s not all.

“Here in the Western Cape, the highest ever temperature recorded on earth, which was 48°C, was recorded at Vredendal,” Jooste added.

Drought and climate change are contributing factors to the water shortage. In Cape Town, rapid population growth, which has seen the number of residents rise to four million, has also put stress on existing water systems.

Authorities are desperately trying to keep from hitting what they’ve called “Day Zero”, otherwise known as the Day the Taps Run Dry. 

They have called on the public to limit water use, publicly shamed people who use a lot of water and restricted water use in the agricultural sector. The alert is set to last for three months but could be extended if the crisis continues.

Boreholes a temporary solution

Provincial leader Helen Zille also announced that Cape Town is going to drill boreholes to provide water to essential services like hospitals and schools.

Boreholes are widely used across South Africa, which does tend to have a dry climate. But they are really just a temporary solution, says John Tonkin, the editor of the South African Borehole Water Journal.

“Rainfall recharges the aquifer,” Tonkin said. “If you pump more water out than what is going in, then it is like you are mining the water. So we are hoping rain will come, so these sources aren’t overexploited.”

If overexploited, groundwater sources can become damaged or polluted.

“Let’s call it a short-term type of thing-- a year or 18 months thereabouts,” Tonkin says.

Farmers hardest hit

When water is scarce, tough choices about resource allocation have to be made.

“The problem in the moment is that in this water crisis, we don’t have enough for water for the domestic and agricultural sectors at the normal supply,” said Kornelius Riemann, who is the chief hydrologist at Umvoto, a resource management consulting firm that is based in Cape Town. “The normal rules are that agricultural supply is curtailed before domestic supply.”

So while people have been told to watch their water use -- to refrain from watering their lawns and to take short showers -- farmers have been struggling with extreme irrigation restrictions. Less water can impact crop yield.

“Our budget is aimed at equipping our farmers, especially emerging farmers, with the support they need to mitigate further losses,” said Alan Winde, Minister of Economic Opportunities, in a statement.

In 2017/18, R47 million will be set aside for drought relief, with a special focus on emerging entrepreneurs.

“We’ve launched a concerted effort in terms of managing the effects of climate change and working with our partners in the private sector,” Bronwynne Jooste, Winde’s spokesperson, said.

Western Cape authorities, farmers and the general population are hunkering down for what will be a tough ride.

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