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Dodging Day Zero: Cape Town’s water crisis

I think most of us are familiar with the following words: “Less than 1% of the water on Earth is readily accessible for human use, and it needs to be shared among 7.6 billion of us.” It is the usual catchphrase used by environmentalists advocating for water conservation. However, despite the extreme figures that they present here, it is still hard to wrap our minds around a reality where water is not readily available as it is right now. To me at least, the mere thought of a life where water is no longer running through our pipelines seems like the plot of a sci-fi movie. Tragically, within a few months, this situation might become more palpable than ever, as Cape Town, a city in South Africa, approaches “Day Zero:” the day in which they would become the first major city in the world to run out of water.

What is Day Zero? Day Zero is the way local politicians and most media sites have been referring to the moment when the city’s water levels drop below 13% of its capacity, and the municipality turns off the water supply. Although the city won’t literally run dry, potable water will only be available to essential services like hospitals, schools, houses for the elderly, and such. The rest of the 4 million citizens will have to queue for their water ration (6.6 gallons per person per day) on one of the 200 collection points created by the government. Concerns have already risen regarding the distribution of the supply, given that this would mean a total of 5000 individuals per point, that if only one person per household collects the water.

This scene is the result of 3 years of successive drought in South Africa, which already ranks 30th on the list of driest countries in the world, and its effects have been aggravated by climate change and a rapidly growing population. As of now, Day Zero is expected to arrive in July, but this might be subject to change given that it has been pushed back several times before. Currently, authorities are hoping that the rainy season, which is supposed to arrive around June, will grant them more time in order to figure out other ways to provide water to their citizens.

Prevention measures At this time, the city is trying to fight Day Zero by advising their citizens to limit their water usage to 13 gallons per day, a very low figure, especially when compared to the 100 gallons per day consumed by the average American. This amount of water roughly translates to, a 90-second shower, one toilet flush, about two liters to drink and some to wash a few clothes or dishes. Many citizens have become very involved with the water saving efforts, something that can be appreciated on the amount of water saving tips shared on social media, which range from suggestions on how to reuse water, to a Spotify playlist full of two-minute long songs. Even Hotels have joined the battle, taking away water plugs from bathtubs and making their guests carry conspicuously large rubber ducks to the lobby whenever they want to take a bath. But, regardless of these efforts, it has been reported that the city is still consuming about 600 megaliters per day which are far above the targeted 400.

Was this avoidable? In 2007 a study was published regarding the water supply system of the Western Cape region of South Africa. It basically stated that if the water consumption levels remained the same, by 2015 the government would need to start investing in projects that would provide more water to this area. However, in 2013 and 2015 the city witnessed unusual high levels of rainfall, thus making it look like their water savings campaigns had been more effective than they actually were, and that there was more water available than initially thought. Which, subsequently led them to announce that extra water supplies would only be needed by 2022. This overconfidence made them push the much-needed investments further into the future and is now the reason why the city is not prepared for the current long-lasting drought.

Besides not complying with the advised prevention measures, the national government allocated 40% of the Western Cape water supply system to agriculture, a decision in which the local authorities had no say in. On top of this, in spite of the severity of the circumstances, it has been reported that there has been no funding allocated to drought relief from the national government for this year, which means that provincial government will have to keep taking care of the problem on its own. In fact, last year Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille appealed directly to the Department of Water and Sanitation for the much-needed financing. But, regardless of the alarming data she presented, her plea was rejected because the city was “not yet at crisis levels.”

Possible impacts These conditions have already taken a toll on the levels of tourism in the region; activity that provides around $3.4 billion to the provincial economy every year; This occurs because many people refrain from going to the city to avoid creating even more water demand. Besides, it has been said that many businesses will be forced to close their doors once Day Zero arrives. And, combined the high levels of time and resources that will go into the distribution of the supply, this event is likely to have far-reaching effects, not only in the local economy but also in the national GDP.

All in all, what we are seeing in this events are the clear effects of climate change, with which most of the cities in the world will have to deal in one way or another as the temperatures in the world increase. Ideally, people become more efficient with a scarce resource. But, until then, it is very unlikely for all of us to get in the same boat and change our consumption habits for a cause that is still seems so far into the future. Therefore, it is the duty of central and local governments to make sure that cities have the correct infrastructure to deal with the environmental problems that lie ahead of them.


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