“Day Zero”: Cape Town’s Water Crisis Pushed to Catastrophic Levels

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By: Caitlin Attaway

Cape Town, South Africa is quickly becoming the catalyst in the global climate change debate. A city once seen as a model for its pioneering work on creating campaigns to promote sustainable water usage, Cape Town has found itself in a state of despair over a once in every 384-year drought that has riddled this image. If current weather trends persist, many Capetonians’ current water consumption habits will be forced to change starting on April 29th: “Day Zero”: the day the city must mandate the rationing of drinking water and stoppage of residential taps. Mayor De Lille, a prominent member of the Democratic Alliance, an opposition party which has political control over Cape Town, believes her city is at “a point of no return.” The dams which currently supply Capetonians with running water currently sit at just 28.1% capacity, a level too low to support the population of this coastal city.

Cape Town’s government and citizens must now confront Day Zero as an impending reality rather than a remote possibility. To ensure chaos does not ensue when Cape Town’s running water is shut off to a vast majority of its some 4 million people, 200 emergency water stations with the capacity to serve roughly 200,000 residents each will be established.

While preliminary plans to tackle the inevitable Day Zero are being configured, many like Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province, remain fearful Cape Town’s lack of ability to provide drinking water in a timely manner may bring about anarchic behavior among the citizenry. Greg Pillay, the head of the Cape Town disaster operation, reaffirms Zille’s apprehensions by stating, “We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources.”

These identified risks are more likely to affect those unable to buy their way out of the water crisis. For the well-off, wealthy inhabitants of Cape Town, water scarcity is more of an inconvenience rather than a full-blown crisis. These wealthy Capetonians are preemptively investing in boreholes and water tanks to create their own self-sufficient water supply as a way to reduce the amount of water they will need to collect from water stations following Day Zero rations.

Those who can afford to seek an alternative source of water have begun to import water from other regions of South Africa which have not been hit as severely by the drought. To cater to this demand, South African companies have begun to ship tankers full of water cross-country. Unfortunately, the majority of Capetonians will not be able to rely on these costly measures to obtain water. Most of Cape Town’s citizens will be forced to rely on their government to provide them with the most fundamental commodity: potable water.

As it stands, each individual will be allotted 25 liters of water per day. To obtain this water Capetonians will have to queue each day in crowds estimated at around 5,000 people per water station. This solution is not sustainable. Long-term alternatives to this water crisis must be considered with utmost urgency. 

The government must speed up its plans to decrease reliance on reservoirs by digging strategically placed boreholes and building desalination plants. According to The New York Times, waiting until 2020 to realize these proposals could lead to a threat which exceeds “anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks.” Panic would be a natural reaction to the sudden stoppage of water; however, Capetonians have been living in world of regulated water rations for months. Hopefully, enduring this prelude to the Day Zero crisis will help Capetonians avoid this predicted catastrophic reaction to residential pipes no longer pumping a single drop of water into the homes of Cape Town.

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