Despite the economic disparity between Cape Town’s world-famous coastline and its 437 informal settlements with more than 146,000 homes, both will be equally affected by sea level rise. Well aware of the risks, Cape Town officials weighing their options mitigate the damage. 

Earth.Org takes a closer look. 

The city of Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa, and the country’s second-most populous city after Johannesburg. Voted best place to visit in the world by both the New York Times and The Daily Telegraph, it has become an economic and cultural hub. The coveted coastline has attracted heavy investment and development, spreading inland as prices rise and availability dwindles. 

Urban expansion can have many flood risk-exacerbating factors. First, filling wetlands and canalizing rivers reduces the environment’s natural water storage capacity. Second, covering natural surfaces with impermeable materials increases water runoff towards topological reservoirs, like low-lying neighborhoods. Finally, uncontrolled expansion often leads to poorly designed drainage systems, typically in poorer neighborhoods where lower-income families bear the brunt of the consequences.  

A risk assessment was commissioned in 2008, concluding that sea level rise could incur USD $4.9 to $11 billion in damages to Cape Town over the next 25 years. Despite this, political gridlock makes it difficult to take action. As of today, the only strategy being considered is moving back from the coast, leaving a buffer zone for natural defenses to do the heavy lifting. We can only hope this will buy the city enough time to solve its political issues and draft a more comprehensive plan. 

Earth.Org has mapped what severe flooding could look like by 2100 as a call to action.

sea level rise by 2100 cape town

Sea level rise projections by 2100 for two scenarios with the amount of rise in meters indicated (mild = 1m; extreme = 4m). Percentage and total population displacement indicated bottom right.


Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 2m at the end of this century. However, in order to determine local sea level rise (SLR), one has to take into account local coastal flood levels which could be 2.8m above Mean Higher-High Water (MHHW) at extreme forecasts. These local levels bring variability to the projected SLR from 1m to 6.5m (eg. Rio vs Kolkata).

The SLR scenarios used in this study are based on the forecasts from Climate Central – Coastal Risk Screening Tool  with the following parameters:

Sea level Projection Source

From two highly cited journals by Kopp et al., estimating SLR mainly due to ocean thermal expansion and ice melt. The mid-range scenario projected 0.5-1.2m of SLR based on different representative concentration pathways (RCP) defined by the IPCC. While the pessimistic scenario added more mechanisms of ice-sheet melting, estimating SLR at 1m-2.5m in 2100, with a projection of 10m SLR at 2300.

Coastal Flooding

More frequent coastal flooding is a direct impact of sea-level rise. Based on the Global tides and surge reanalysis by Muis et al., (2016), it is estimated that the extreme coastal water level could be from 0.2 – 2.8m over the mean level. While in extreme cases like China and the Netherlands it could experience 5-10m of extreme sea levels. Here, the coastal local flood level is added on top of the projected SLR.

Pollution Scenario

Allows choosing the RCP, the greenhouse gas concentration trajectory defined by the IPCC.  The mild level is based on RCP4.5, of 2°C temperature rise; while the Extreme level is based on RCP 8.5, of 4°C temperature rise.


Applies to the baseline SLR, defined in the “Sea level projection” section, upon which we add flooding. “Mild” refers to the mid-range scenario of 0.5-1.2m, and “extreme” to the pessimistic scenario of 1-2.5m. We used the high-end value of each scenario (mild = 1m; extreme = 2.5m).

Mapping and methodology by Braundt Lau.

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