Where our water goes

Preventing a water crisis in South Africa

Water covers 70 percent of our planet but less than two percent of it is fresh and accessible. In South Africa especially, every drop is precious, and our communities have worked hard to keep water from running out. Now National Geographic photographer Brent Stirton is on a mission to find out where our water goes, and how we could beat Day Zero for good.

south africa

South Africa’s water stress starts with its rainfall. It receives just 492 millimeters compared to a global average of 985 millimeters, falling mostly in the eastern half of the country. The hot climate brings high rates of evaporation and global warming is expected to not only make South Africa hotter but also drier with more frequent droughts. This, combined with a growing population and inadequate water infrastructure, makes water conservation crucial at every level—from national government through to individual households.

From January 2020, drought-stricken areas of the Eastern Cape could be forced to limit emergency water supplies to just 10 liters per person per day.
Northern Cape
The driest Place in South Africa is Alexander Bay with an average annual rainfall of only 46 mm—less than 10% of South Africa’s low annual average.
The wettest place in South Africa is Matiwa, in the northernmost province of Limpopo. It receives an average annual rainfall of 2,004 mm.
Free State
Water from the Orange River is captured and stored in the 100 km long Gariep Dam, South Africa’s largest dam with a surface area of 374 km2.
On top of a severe drought, Ugu Municipality is also experiencing saltwater intrusion as strong tides push seawater up the river.
Western Cape
Capetonians remain restricted to 105 liters per person per day, although water use is sometimes significantly higher than the municipal target.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project delivers around 780-million cubic metres a year from the mountains of Lesotho into the Vaal Dam catchment.
When a severe drought hit New Mexico, some farmers were forced to abandon their fields with water extractions limited to under one third of normal. However, some farmers have switched to planting more drought-resistant crops like beans.
San Diego is one of America’s fastest growing cities with over 1.4 million citizens to provide for. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego turns 100 million gallons of seawater into 50 million gallons of freshwater every day.
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Day Zero: Where next?

Cape town may have dodged the Day Zero bullet, but all across South Africa drought and rising demand is escalating a national water crisis.


Where our water goes

After Cape Town narrowly escaped becoming the first major city to run out of water, the question remains—how secure is South Africa’s water future?

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On average, South Africans use around 237 liters of water a day, significantly above the world average of 173 liters. Although restrictions in Cape Town have shown what can be achieved on as little as 50 liters, much of South Africa’s water is still wasted unnecessarily which is why it is crucial that we all know where our water goes.

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Ways to save water

Knowing where we waste water can inspire us to take positive action. There are many things that each and every one of us can do to reduce our water consumption and the actions we take as individuals can make a big difference. Collectively we need to reduce our water consumption to reduce the threat of severe water shortages.

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Putting a block or two-liter bottle of sand in your cistern can save up to 7,300 liters per year

High-efficiency shower heads can use as little as 6 liters per minute, saving 30 liters per five-minute shower

Switching from a top loading washing machine to a front loader saves up to 100 liters of water per load

Newer, efficient dishwashers use less than 9.5 liters of water for a full load, saving around 57 liters against handwashing in a sink.

Taps fitted with flow-controlled aerators use less than 800 milliliters of water per minute, saving over 8 liters per minute

Installing a drip irrigator uses just 4 liters per hour, saving as much as 4,446 liters per hour



Freshwater Crisis

There is the same amount of freshwater on earth as there always has been, but the population has exploded, leaving the world's water resources in crisis.

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