Why Cape Town is axing trees to conserve water

The South African city of Cape Town has mobilised teams to chop down tens of thousands of trees in order to protect the city’s water supply, according to a report by the BBC.

Three years ago, the city experienced a severe drought which turned reservoirs into dustbowls. The city was dangerously close to reaching a day termed ‘’Day Zero’’ - a moment where some 4 million inhabitants would be left without water.

To avoid this devastating event becoming a reality, the city has started to cut down Invasive Alein Plants (IAPs) which are not indigenous to the area and threaten water security in Cape Town.

Cape Town has large areas covered in pine trees, which are not native to South Africa. Originally introduced into Cape Town to support the timber industry, the trees are competing with native flora and depleting precious water sources. Non-native trees use up roughly three months’ worth of the city’s total annual water consumption.

Nkosinathi Nama, the individual responsible for coordinating the Greater Cape Town Water Fund, stated that ‘The pines are not indigenous to this area. They use up so much water – much more water than indigenous plants. This is the green infrastructure that we need to fix.’

There is a risk that, as water supply falls, food supplies may fall too as agriculture is heavily reliant on the water supply. In South Africa, roughly 70% of water supplies are utilised to irrigate crops. If food becomes scarcer, the price of food will increase (to take into account the increased pressure on fewer supplies). As price increases, the proportion of income taken up by food will increase too, leaving households with little disposable income, pushing more families into poverty. There is also a risk that as the price of food rises, people may not be able to afford food at all, creating a risk of absolute poverty as households are unable to afford the basics for a decent quality of life. South Africa already has high levels of poverty - according to the World Bank roughly 55.5% of the population were classed as living in poverty in 2014.

Cutting down trees is one of the many steps being taken to reduce pressure on water supplies. Other actions include fines for individuals who do not reduce their consumption and farmers agreeing to refrain from using municipal water for months.

The water shortages have brought concerns about the unpredictable nature weather patterns created by climate change to the fore.


Written by Deandra Peiris

Research compiled by Kristina Njeru


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