Cape Town Is Running Out of Water. What’s It Like To Visit?

Feb 15, 2018

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The day I got to Cape Town, the New York Times ran a huge story about how the city is running out of water, and a friend who lives there posted a photo on her Facebook page of empty grocery store shelves that had been quickly stripped of their bottled water. The South African city is indeed about to go dry. So what is it like for a tourist like me to go there? How does a visit to a city facing a dire environmental emergency work?

Cape Town -- Water, water everywhere, but nary a desalinization plant to let you drink it.
Cape Town — Water, water everywhere, but nary a desalinization plant to let you drink it.

I had booked the trip to the second-most populous urban area in South Africa back in July, when I saw a crazy deal on Ethiopian Airlines. At the time, I had no idea that I’d be encountering an environmental crisis. As the date approached, I became more mindful of the situation there. Months of drought coupled with poor management put Cape Town in the position of declaring April 12 to be Day Zero — the day the pipes would shut down and all water would be rationed, doled out in limited quantities at distribution points throughout the city. Long lines would be expected and violent chaos was feared.

I just wanted to see some penguins.

It didn’t take long after landing at Cape Town International Airport (CPT) to get the message that saving water is a priority. In fact, I didn’t even make it to the terminal before seeing a sign: on the jetway, I was encouraged to help save water.

Messaging was consistent in the terminal. First, I couldn’t miss the point at the immigration checkpoint.

There was more signage at baggage claim and even an artsy display approaching the exit. 1L, in case you’re wondering, is not a gate number, but one liter — South Africa uses the metric system.

The hotel got the message too. Checking in to Protea Hotel Cape Town Sea Point (booked with only 10,000 Marriott Rewards points per night) I was greeted with a sign in the lobby and a slip of paper with my key.

In the room, there were even more reminders.

And of course, the pool was among the first casualties.


Almost every restaurant acknowledged the crisis, usually in the bathrooms.

In fact, almost every bathroom, no matter how remote, encouraged limiting water.

I never found it difficult to find bottled water and there didn’t seem to be any price gouging. Sometimes signs were posted limiting the amount per purchase, but that was never for quantities of 1 liter or less.

Still, some stores were running low.

Fun Fact: I lost one of the water bottles I bought to a baboon!

But the headlines were serious. Day Zero was all over the local papers.

Even the SCUBA dive shop was doing its part. When I returned to the shop, no showers were allowed at all.

With all of this happening all around me, I was glad to do my part. I did not take a shower until a quick on-off on my last day. My travel friend and I implemented an “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” protocol for the toilet and used hand sanitizer as a substitute for soap-and-water when appropriate.

No one is monitoring your water use and aside from the aerator placed on some sink faucets, no physical restrictions are placed on your consumption. That is, until a few days into my stay, when we got a letter from the hotel that the water pressure would be lowered.
Still, at the end of the day it’s a personal decision as to how much you want to help. For now, the same is true for residents. I read more than one news story about wealthy homeowners with flourishing lawns and gleaming, full swimming pools.
The airport lounge at Cape Town International Airport is also on board.
The airport lounge at Cape Town International Airport is also on board.
For me, it wasn’t a question. As someone who tries to be environmentally conscious at home and who strives to be a responsible traveler, I was glad to participate. Also, my friend and I both enjoyed the challenge of seeing who could use less water. (She won.)
From an ethical point of view, there’s a legitimate question of whether a tourist should visit Cape Town at all. For every visitor, even for those who severely restrict their water usage, that’s added loads of laundry, pots of coffee, sinks of dirty dishes and whatever other uses of water we don’t usually think about.
Talking to residents and tourism workers, it was unanimous that they wanted me to be there. Not only is tourism an enormous industry in Cape Town that keeps these people employed, but tourist money generates needed tax revenue. After all, it’s tax funds that pay for public water works.
I take them at their word and I was glad to be there. Especially for the penguins.
That said, had my trip occurred close to Day Zero, I would have given serious consideration to postponing or canceling. There’s something that doesn’t feel right about taking some of the last liters of water just so I can have a vacation.
A couple days after I left, Cape Town moved Day Zero to May, and at the time of publication, it’s been moved again to June. Here’s hoping that Cape Town can drink in more good news as the year flows on, and more tourists will flood in to enjoy this world-class city.
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