“I feel quite on edge about it—anxious in fact—with the constant worry as to whether I’m truly doing enough,” Cape Town resident Andrea Petersen told me this week. Living with the uncertainty of water availability presents significant challenges.
A three-year drought, coupled with population increase and insufficient planning, has brought the city face to face with a water shortage so serious that, when reservoirs fall below 13.5% of capacity this spring, city leaders will cut all municipal water service. City officials are calling that point “Day Zero.”
For months now, residents have been asked to reduce their water consumption, first to 87 liters per day, and now to 50 liters per day. The conservation efforts have been challenging, residents explain. “It has greatly changed my day-to-day life,” says Petersen, a Cape Town native who works for a nonprofit organization. “From taking under two-minute showers, collecting all graywater, to buying more ready-made meals to lessen dishes—my water usage is constantly on my mind.” That said, Petersen explains that the allocations have also made her realize how small, incremental changes in one’s daily routine can collectively have a great impact. She’s changed her tap aerator to a low-flow fitting and has installed a rain collection tank at her home.
Officials were warned more than a decade ago that population growth and changes in climate patterns creating drier, hotter weather would require drastic conservation efforts and the addition of new, supplemental water sources. But they greatly underestimated the gravity and timing of the crisis.
Four new desalination plants and a reuse facility are currently under construction and water wells are quickly being drilled. Once the taps are turned off, the city plans to create 200 water distribution centers where residents can collect 25 liters (6.6 gallons) per person per day. These centers will dispense water from 50 supply taps overseen by military personnel.
“A general sense in South Africa is that government efforts are lacking,” says Petersen. “What’s missing is a sense of common effort and intention from government in how we can tackle this crisis—there are still divisions even at a local level, with members from the same party criticizing local efforts in managing the drought.”
Uncertainty remains as to whether the city will be able to avert Day Zero. By early May, Cape Town’s four million residents may have to stand in line at guarded distribution centers to collect drinking water. While the scenario sounds like the plot of a dystopian film, it’s reality.
“Residents of Cape Town are very surprised by how dramatically the situation has escalated,” Magalie Bourblanc, a public policy analyst specializing in resource management at South Africa’s University of Pretoria, told National Geographic. “But I think people are realizing very quickly just how bad the situation could be.”
Also important to recognize is the number of cities worldwide that are facing the same set of circumstances. Cities like Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Melbourne await their own Day Zero. In California alone, several municipalities have found themselves amid a severe water shortage. As my colleague Janice Kaspersen points out here, some are focusing their efforts on resource management and on preparing their storage and distribution systems for hotter, drier days to come. Water scarcity is not an issue isolated to Cape Town—it’s a global crisis.