Day Zero Approaches Cape Town

Tony Kappen - 1B ECE
Posted on: February 12, 2018

Day Zero—the day when the water taps run dry—is racing towards Cape Town, South Africa. Expected to be some time in mid-April, this dire condition is the product of a record three-year long drought that has left the second most populous city in South Africa and the seat of its national parliament struggling to cope.

The possibility of a major metropolis of three million people simply not having the water to sustain its population might have seemed unimaginable a decade ago, but the changing climate, overdevelopment, and an exploding population have made such a scenario far more likely in cities and towns all over the world.

Cape Town seems to have met this fate far sooner than expected. The city is prepping some 200 emergency water stations outside supermarkets and other common gathering spots. Each one of these centers will have to serve almost 20,000 people. City officials have made plans to store emergency water supplies at military installations, protected by armed guards. It is now illegal in the city to use water taps for non-essential activities like filling pools and washing cars. Some companies have taken advantage of the dire situation and driven the price of bottled water sky high.

When the state of the water supply first became evident, the city began to urge its citizens to consume less water. Months later, fewer than half of the population had followed the advice laid out by city officials to consume less than 50 liters a day (about a sixth of what the average American consumes). At Day Zero, the city will be forced to enforce a strict ration on the amount of water available for individual consumption at just 25 liters—less than what is typically used up after four minutes of showering.

There are a great many lessons to be learned from the path Cape Town followed to reach its current point, the most important of which is to not expect the past to be a consistent indicator of the future. Like much of Southern California, most of South Africa is dry and arid. Yet in Cape Town, the presence of its most recognizable feature, the Table Mountains, has meant that it receives rains from trapped offshore breezes coming off warm ocean waters. These rains power the rivers and aquifers the city relies on for its water.

Over the last 20 years, the city realized the threats facing its water supply and took action. It made strides in reducing the water consumption from its six major reservoirs, fixing leaks and charging major consumers more—even attempting to publicly shame over-users. Cape Town, as result, won several international water management awards.

In the end, even those measures were hardly enough; the danger came suddenly. In 2014 all six major dams were full, but then came 3 years of drought. Now the reservoirs stand at just 26 % of capacity. When they reach 13.5% capacity, the city will have no choice but to shut down the taps and conserve the water it has for the bare necessities of human life.

As the climate changes, more extreme weather patterns like the three years of drought in Cape Town become more likely and common. There are several major metropolis that are already facing the increasing pressure of a changing planet. This includes cities like Mexico City, Mexico, whose 21 million people are forced to make due with half a day of water each day. Water managers in Melbourne, Australia predict that the city could run out of water within the decade. Much like Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Brazil was down to just 20 days of water when some last minute rain prevented authorities from having to shut down the taps completely.

As the climate changes, water becomes scarcer and scarcer for more and more of the world’s population. Cities that could traditionally rely on consistent sources of water must now innovate and seek new solutions. In Cape Town, construction is underway to create a desalination plant to tap into the as-of-yet untapped ocean of water at its door step. The city even has proposals to extract water directly from the clouds trapped above the Table Mountains, although this idea still remains a pipe dream as no concrete steps have been taken to make it a reality.

Ultimately if we are to face the water crises of the future, we will need to innovate and be creative. Only then will the taps in the cities around the world keep flowing.

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