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South Africa's water crisis

Cape Town came close to being the first major city on earth to run out of water. Despite an eleventh-hour reprieve, across the country South Africans are increasingly worried about their water future.
Photograph by Brent Stirton

A DRY THEEWATERSKLOOF DAM, CAPE TOWN

The Theewaterskloof Dam is the main water supply for Cape Town, the first major city to face a Day Zero scenario. Timely rainfall means the reservoir is now much fuller but dead trees along the shoreline bear witness to the devastating effect of drought.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

A PARCHED SEA POINT PROMENADE, CAPE TOWN

Cape Town’s famous Sea Point Promenade was once flanked by parks of green grass. The recent and severe drought has seen a number of the city’s parks lose their access to water, leaving only dead grass, rocks, and dry earth.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

WATERING PRIZE CATTLE, STELLENBOSCH

A farmer uses water from a borehole to give his prized Ankole cattle their daily ration. In many areas farming has suffered severely from hotter and drier weather; the use of boreholes has become common although the long-term effects on aquifers remain to be seen.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

WATER SHORTAGES IN LAINGSBURG, THE KAROO

A sign warning of extreme water restrictions greets motorists as they enter Laingsburg, one of the most water threatened towns in the arid Karoo region. Wastewater is increasingly recycled for gardens but Lainsburg is so dry that the authorities recycle it for wider use.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

A FIRE TRUCK SUPPLIES WATER, LAINGSBURG

Laingsburg has been experiencing a long and severe drought, and despite rainfall elsewhere in South Africa the dry conditions continue here. Several times a week the fire-brigade delivers water to the town’s poorest areas, filling barrels and water troughs that helps keep livestock alive.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

WASTED STORM WATER, KWAZULU-NATAL

Storm water overwhelms inadequate drainage following heavy rainfall in rural Kwazulu-Natal. South Africa’s water infrastructure has serious shortcomings including leaky pipes and treatment facilities in disrepair. Such failings waste the precious available water and intensify the country’s water stress.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

KHAYELITSHA TOWNSHIP, CAPE TOWN

Khayelitsha is reputedly the fastest-growing township in South Africa with a massive urban drift increasing the pressure on Cape Town’s outdated water infrastructure. However, township residents use an average of just 25 litres a day, so they were largely unaffected by the drought restrictions.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

A WOMAN COLLECTS WATER, VENDA

In areas without piped facilities, water has to be collected by hand. It is a tedious, physical, and time-consuming daily chore that is often done by women and children, affecting their access to education and limiting their opportunities in life.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

LIVING OFF THE WATER GRID, CAPE TOWN

Helen Moffet has written extensively on water conservation in the light of Cape Town’s crisis. Her home is almost entirely off the water grid, relying instead on rainwater and recycled water for washing clothes and showering; she uses a spray bottle to wash her dishes.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

YOUNG BOYS PLAY IN A CANAL, KWAZULU-NATAL

This canal is the main water supply for a small town and surrounding farms. Used for drinking and bathing, its quality is compromised by also being used for cattle. Such contamination increases water problems and will have to be addressed in any solution for South Africa’s water security.

Photograph by Brent Stirton