The vista could hardly be more barren or forbidding – a parched sandy landscape, baking beneath the afternoon sun, broken only by scarred trunks of long-dead trees and a few dried-up fish. Ruined houses, scraps of road and a rail track are the only signs of humanity, haunting remnants of long-disappeared lives.
In normal circumstances, these relics would be hidden from view. For this desert-scape where I am walking does not lie in some arid wasteland. It sits in the middle of what was, until recently, a massive reservoir that held the precious lifeblood of a major modern city.
Those trees and houses and rail tracks should lie submerged beneath almost 50ft of glistening water. But the waters have receded, exposing the valley floor.
‘Every day you see something new emerge from the water,’ says Jacques Dreyer, a local sports club manager, pointing out white lines still visible on a road that was under water for four decades until last week.
Dreyer used to enjoy life at the water’s edge, taking a daily dip just 20 yards from his door. Now he must travel a mile and a half for a swim while his boats are banked, his campsites largely empty and his business struggling.
But this is not just one man’s tragedy, it is a national emergency – and one with chilling implications for the whole planet.
This vast dammed reservoir, surrounded by stunning mountains, supplies almost two-thirds of the water for Cape Town, a city of four million people at the fertile centre of South African agriculture. Produce from surrounding fields and orchards helps fill British supermarket shelves with fruit and vegetables all year round.
Yet it is only at 11.7 per cent capacity after the region’s worst drought in more than a century. Some time soon, perhaps this week, the water will drop below the level it needs to be to flow into the supply pipes that take it into the city.
Africa’s tenth biggest city is facing an unprecedented crisis. Rigid water restrictions on businesses, farms and households have helped hold disaster at bay – but it may not be enough.
For the moment called ‘Day Zero’ is approaching. This is when most taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue at 200 standpipes installed in streets for diminishing water supplies. If insufficient rain falls when their winter arrives to replenish key water supplies, Cape Town has just over 100 days left before that fateful day arrives.
The authorities in a conurbation scarred by extreme inequality are scrambling to prepare disaster plans for disease epidemics and urban unrest.
Businesses are drawing up survival plans, with jobs already disappearing in their thousands.
There are even predictions of an exodus of families used to living in a fully-functioning city – and claims that this disaster is the first urban equivalent of droughts that before now only blighted rural parts of this continent.
No one knows what would happen if a major urban area ran out of water, but one expert talked to me about ‘Mad Max’ scenarios with roaming gangs on the streets.
‘This situation is far more serious than people realise,’ said Benoit Le Roy, a water analyst. ‘Even in a war zone you can usually get water. If there is not enough water, unemployment will increase and the army will need to keep the peace.’
On one level, this crisis symbolises the corruption and incompetence that festered under Jacob Zuma, who finally resigned as South Africa’s president last week after nine years of sleazy misrule that so tarnished the legacy of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). Yet Cape Town also sends a warning to the world: that water is a limited resource, that climate change can have a cataclysmic impact and that even wealthy areas are not immune to its devastating effects.
This is not the first city to experience water shock, but it is the most serious. Sao Paolo in Brazil saw supplies run so low three years ago the pipes sucked up mud and the flow of water to homes was cut to twice a week. Competition for water has been cited as a factor behind Middle East conflict, while some fear the situation will only worsen as urban populations swell in global hotspots, placing unsustainable pressure on dwindling supplies.
Military strategists even talk of water, not oil, as the potential trigger for 21st Century conflicts, while the United Nations has warned water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.
Even away from war zones, there are many places with fast-growing populations, inadequate infrastructure and rising demand for water as affluence increases. Melbourne in Australia says its water could run out in a decade – and even London has warned that demand is close to capacity and the city faces future supply problems.
If you want to know how an urban water catastrophe would affect life, you can find out in Cape Town today. There is already a 50 litre (11 gallon) daily water limit per person – the amount used during an average shower in Britain – with 2,000 devices a week being installed that cut household supplies if this is breached. Under emergency restrictions it is now illegal to wash cars, water gardens, run fountains and fill swimming pools from municipal supplies.
Buckets under showers in homes collect water, cafes ask customers not to flush toilets, clothes are worn for longer, farms have been forced to slash water usage, hotels have removed bath plugs to stop anyone tempted to fill them and signs everywhere detail how to save supplies.
Xanthea Limberg, chairman of the council’s water resilience committee, even told me she has cut the long tresses that used to hang down her back since shorter hair needs less washing. ‘This is the reality of our new normal,’ she said. ‘Climate change is a reality. In 2017 the weather people predicted we would have average levels of rainfall after two difficult years but then it was the worst in recorded history.’
The problem is most visible at the giant, rapidly disappearing reservoir, near Villiersdorp, about 70 miles from Cape Town.
Here, I came across a party of Christians praying for deliverance. One woman was on her knees begging the Lord for rain, while a German man was striking the ground with a stick in hope of emulating the biblical tale of Moses finding water.
Joan Ackerman, a retired machinist from near Cape Town, told me she was praying ‘to ask God to open the floodgates from heaven.’
Her friend Maxie Esau, a 48-year-old hairdresser, suggested the drought was divine retribution for crime, drugs, drinking and homosexuality in their home city. Utter nonsense, of course.
But in a country with brutal politics, there is savage bickering over who bears responsibility for a crisis that some experts and officials saw coming.
Clearly there was too little spending on infrastructure for a city that doubled its population in a decade, despite efforts to slash wastage and improve systems. Yet the blame game is complicated since the city is a stronghold of the opposition Democratic Alliance, while national government – controlled since the end of apartheid in 1994 by the ANC – has responsibility for critical state infrastructure.
And no one really knows if the reduced rains and scarce snows on mountains are a meteorological extreme or an alarming sign of the times.
People are left hoping – praying – that this year will see enough rain fall to fill the reservoirs, unlike the past three. Activists already complain restrictions unfairly target poorer communities, arguing the council was slow to stop private swimming pools being filled but quick to install smart meters that limit water in less wealthy districts.
Shaheed Mahomed, committee member of the Water Crisis Coalition, said 200,000 houses have multiple families living in them with up to 15 residents but faced similar restrictions to prosperous single-family dwellings.
‘People are really angry,’ he said. ‘By the time kids go to school or people set off for work the authorities have already turned off the taps. I lived through the 1980s when there was huge anger against apartheid but it is much worse now.’
Officials are preparing for possible chaos. ‘The primary risk would be breakdown in the sanitary system,’ said Greg Pillay, head of the Disaster Risk Management Centre. ‘Then there could be an outbreak of disease and civil unrest.’
Clem Sunter, a scenario planner advising the city, has warned against underestimating how catastrophic Day Zero might be, with the city relying on thousands of water tankers. ‘You would have to think of temporarily evacuating people,’ he said.
One adviser told me he knows of businesses quietly shifting offices and jobs to other cities, driving up already high unemployment levels. He believes many families will flee the region if the crisis is not rapidly resolved.
There are signs tourists are cancelling trips. Top attractions have seen a decline in their visitor numbers: Robben Island, where Mandela was jailed, lost almost a third in a year. Western Cape farms, which contribute 23 per cent of South Africa’s agricultural output and are the main employer in rural areas, have also been hit as they need so much water to irrigate their orchards, fields and vineyards. Livestock herds have been slaughtered, fruit trees felled and yields of surviving crops are sharply down, while 50,000 workers have seen incomes suffer.
It is estimated to have cost the sector almost £1 billion already while the domino effect hurts related areas of the economy. One tomato puree factory, for instance, warned it will not open this season.
I visited Chiltern Farms, where 600 workers produce 12,000 tons of fruit a year including Pink Lady and Gala apples sold in British supermarkets. Farm manager Emile Pretorius said watering restrictions meant apples and pears are smaller, more fruit is damaged by ‘sunburn’ and yields are down.
‘As farmers we are optimistic next year will always be better,’ said Pretorius. ‘But you can see a pattern of less rain each year and less snow in the mountains.
‘If this does not change we will have to lay people off.’
South Africans like to say they are stoic, yet many I spoke to seemed pessimistic over escaping this crisis if it continues, especially after Zuma’s appalling regime drained cash from state coffers and undermined fiscal credibility.
The clouds could open any time, of course. But as one expert said, if this drought is down to climate change, albeit intensified by woeful mismanagement, then it is a wake-up call for both a verdant region ringed by deserts and the wider world.
Perhaps people should listen to South Africa’s First People: the bushmen who live in the Kalahari and Karoo deserts for days without food and drinking just half a litre (less than a pint) of water a day.
‘They should have prepared for this,’ said Kerson Pafre Jackson, 47, a bushman originally from Namibia. ‘Western people must be so clean, everything around them, even cars. People in the city shower for hours.
‘Water is life,’ he added. ‘You mustn’t play with water.’