We’ve seen modern cities grapple with historic, seemingly never-ending droughts before. That, unfortunately, is nothing new.
But the situation now unfolding in Cape Town, South Africa, is something new: a major city — a thriving global tourism destination, at that — on the cusp on running dry with no signs of relief in sight.
For the 3.7 million-some residents in metro Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest and second most populous urban area, "Day Zero" — the date the city’s depleted reservoirs are expected to officially hit empty — is inching forward at an alarming speed. Day Zero was initially calculated to occur on April 22. But on Feb. 5, city officials pushed the date forward to May 11. If that date holds, Cape Town will become the first major city on the planet to run out of useable drinking water.
The city got a brief reprieve on Feb. 9 when it rained less than an inch — the first rainfall since Jan. 22. While that amount may seem trivial and more than likely won't change Day Zero, residents were overjoyed at the sight. Many people even grabbed buckets to collect the rainwater, CNN reported.
And to be clear, Cape Town’s reservoirs won’t be totally empty come May 11.
Reuters notes that as of now, water levels at the city’s dams are just below 30 percent capacity. However, only 19 percent or so of that water is usable due to silt content. On Day Zero, the water supply is expected to drop to 13.5 percent capacity, an amount that allows water to be piped in as normal to hospitals and other essential operations. And that’s it — all other water services will be turned off.
With no water running through their taps, H2O-seeking residents will be forced to rely on 200 or so municipal water collection points that will be spread throughout the city. (Some trial distribution sites have been up and running for months now.) Secured by armed guards, the 24/7 rationing sites will allocate a daily allotment of 25 liters, or 6.6 gallons, per person. Residents requiring more than that are on their own. Twenty liters of water per day is the bare minimum for a person to maintain proper health and hygiene per World Health Organization standards.
Officials in South Africa's Western Cape region have been operating water distribution sites since last year. On Day Zero, these sites will be the only way residents can access clean municipal water. (Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)
Capetonians struggle to make do with less
While making do with just over 6 gallons of water per day is extreme for most Capetonians, many have been vigilantly watching their water usage for weeks, if not months.
As Time reports, a decent number of households have been dutifully obeying a 23 gallons-or-less rule that was mandated by the city late last year. With Day Zero looming, showers have been cut drastically short, cars have gone unwashed, once-lush lawns have been left to brown, swimming pools have been drained and shuttered and toilets, well, they’re not getting as flushed as regularly as they once were. "Unwashed hair is now a symbol of upright citizenship, and public restrooms are festooned with admonishments to 'let it mellow,'" writes Time.
But as mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg explains to Reuters, a decent number of households heeding the warning and taking action simply hasn’t been enough to prevent Day Zero from lurching forward. (The city estimates that only 54 percent of residents are conserving enough to hit the 23 gallons or less per day mark.)
It is important that all residents must continue to save water, despite the City’s work to secure new water sources. I cannot stress it enough: all residents must save water and use less than 87 litres per day.— Patricia de Lille (@PatriciaDeLille) January 11, 2018
"At the current rate the city is likely to reach Day Zero on 22 April," she says. "There is a real risk that residents will have to line up."
Limberg goes on to note that while Cape Town is home to many wealthy, water-guzzling residents, city officials have mostly refrained from blaming and shaming more affluent Capetonians. That tactic was employed in Southern California during its historic drought as a means of outing water-wasting scofflaws who continued to fill their pools and irrigate their expansive lawns despite restrictions. (Cape Town’s drought, the worst in over a century, just entered its third consecutive year, by the way.)
But according to ABC News, the city is allowing residents to view how much water their neighbors are — or aren’t — consuming via a newly launched online database that makes public each Cape Town household’s water habits based on municipal water bills. The website, which was unveiled to help raise awareness as the situation has grown increasingly dire with each passing day, has received mostly negative feedback from the public.
"The potential water-saving benefit for all of Cape Town of making water consumption indicators publicly available outweighs any privacy issues at this stage of the crisis‚" Zara Nicholson, a spokeswoman for mayor De Lille, said in defense of the website.
Theewaterskloof Dam, which serves as the main water source for the city of Cape Town, dropped below 20 percent capacity in May 2017. Other vital dams in the region have similarly dried up due to drought. (Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)
A catastrophe in the making?
In addition to three years of woefully minimal rainfall, Cape Town's current crisis was sparked by a dramatic increase in water usage amongst the Western Cape region’s fast-growing population.
Meanwhile, officials are scrambling to open desalianation plants, which transform seawater into clean drinking water, and drill wells that would tap into underground aquifers and help supplement Cape Town’s dwindling water supply. However, many fear that these efforts are too little, too late and won’t be up and running until just before, or even after, Day Zero.
In addition to the detrimental impact that Cape Town’s water shortage is having on residents, particularly low-income and disadvantaged South Africans, there are serious concerns about the city’s tourism industry, which is a massive economic driver in the region and in South Africa as a whole. Over 2 million visitors from around the globe flock to the historic port city each year, most of them coming for the pristine white sand beaches, lush natural scenery, wineries and laid-back, multicultural vibe. Cape Town has long positioned itself as a far-flung yet sophisticated paradise — but will travelers stay away if this particular paradise doesn’t involve running water?
"Running out of water in places that have a highly developed water infrastructure is not that common," Bob Scholes, a professor of systems ecology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told Bloomberg back in December when the situation was looking slightly less grim. "I know of no example of a city the size of Cape Town running out of water. It would be quite catastrophic."