By Aparajita Arya
Last Thursday, Cape Town’s mayor, Dr Patricia de Lille finally admitted, “Day Zero is likely.” With severe restrictions being placed on water usage across the city, it has been estimated that due to water shortage, within 100 days, a majority of taps in Cape Town will run dry. It will place the city in an almost dystopian state, leaving its people to ration water as if it were the new gold.
What is Day Zero?
South Africa, and more specifically the region around Cape Town, is currently in the third year of a never-ending drought. The reason for this is the shortage of rainfall throughout the whole of the area’s western province. This has resulted in severe water scarcity conditions where the city council has had to limit water usage for around 3.7 million people, most of these restrictions being categorized at level six in terms of their gravity. In fact, at the moment, people in Cape Town are limited to using 87 litres of water a day, and a restriction such as this one has never been experienced in South African history. From February 1, the city will further lower this number to 50 litres a day per resident.
Most of the water supply in the city comes from dams, which are currently at a level of 27.1 percent. When this amount touches 13.5 percent of the dams’ capacity, the city will reach what is termed as “Day Zero”, marking a moment after which the city’s water sources will no longer be able to sustain its requirements. In fact, considering the severity of the situation, some people have estimated that it is not in 100 days but only in 6 weeks that the dreaded Day Zero is set to arrive.
It hasn’t always been this way
Contrary to the current situation, the western and southern regions of South Africa have always been bountifully blessed with an abundance of water resources. In fact, the dense winter rains in the area have been enough to sustain people throughout the year. This region was infamously referred to, by the Khoi people, an indigenous group, as the “Camissa”, a term that translates to the “kingdom of sweet waters.” Even for the European colonisers, the land between the South Atlantic and the Table Mountain was a popular and preferred destination to stop and replenish their water reserves; so much so that a designated refreshment stop was created there in 1652. In its geographical construction as well, since the city is situated on a terrain shaped like a bowl, it acts as a natural catchment area for rain.
Thus, substantial winter rains and the complementing terrain have been the primary sources that have supplied copious amounts of water to the city’s dams. It has been estimated that until 2015, the city only used a third of the average rainfall.
Thus, Cape Town has been encased in a saga of plenitude when as regards its water resources.
Why have the dams dried up?
Kevin Winter, a professor in the University of Cape Town, has said that “As a winter rainfall region… we would expect rainfall to start somewhere around April, but that is no longer the case, it comes a whole lot later at the end of June or in early July if we are lucky.” Indeed, since 2015, Cape Town has experienced minimal rainfall, owing to the less frequent rains, which have forced the dams to fall below levels of 29 percent.
In fact, if these levels were to be raised now, the city would need over three years’ worth of combined rainfall to overcome the current shortage. Climate change and alterations in weather patterns are the chief culprits for this drought, and because Cape Town’s winter season itself has changed, its effects are being experienced in all other aspects of its natural environment.
The city’s municipal council has limited water consumption per resident to avoid the impending Day Zero, set to arrive on April 12th. Water Wise, a South African organization, has noted that people use 15 litres of water per minute for a shower and 15 litres per flush. It has also been noted, “At present, residents are using about 350 million litres per day, while other sectors such as commerce, industry, government and large institutions are using 250 million.” The city has, as a combined figure for all these sectors, set the target for 450 million litres of usage. Thus restrictions on residents and industries are being pursued as means to slow down the race to Day Zero.
Everyday lives affected the most
In a situation that is almost chaotic, several figures are being thrown around, most of them worrying, and almost all of them confirming the magnitude of the adverse effects on people and businesses in Cape Town. For instance, in the agricultural sector, farmers have been supplied water from the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS), which has set a net target usage of 58 million cubic metres of water. Soon, this figure will be reached, and the taps for farmers will be closed.
Owing to the current restrictions, people have begun to reuse water in ways that may be hazardous to their health. One resident was quoted saying “if it’s yellow let it mellow, and if it’s brown, flush it down.” People have had to queue in front of stadiums and other public holdings to collect their share of water each day. Some persons have even been known to travel to the mountains to gather water. For the richer members of the community, the demand for mineral water bottles has exponentially risen as they stock up their water reserves.
This water shortage has encouraged shrewd entrepreneurs to hoard water, as much as 2000 litres of it, and sell it to desperate buyers at exorbitant prices. To combat this, security measures have had to be put in place, and individuals have been limited to 25 litres of water at a time to avoid people breaching the current regulations. In fact, the city authorities have devised a system wherein they install water management devices in homes of persons offending the limits for water usage. Each of these devices costs $378, and these costs are to be borne by the residents themselves.
This environment of disorder and austerity has left people angry, as they can hardly go about their everyday lives.
Helen Zille, the Western Cape premier, said that the current crisis “exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/11” and a consensus has been built in the political community of Cape Town that political bickering must come to an end to combat this collective crisis. Consequently, the city has planned several water projects that are estimated to add around 150-250 million litres of water to the city’s supply every day. The focus has been shifted to mobilising existing resources, and community volunteers have stepped up to assist with the government’s efforts. Some people are even praying for a miracle like April 2005 to occur, where a thunderstorm led to 100mm of rain falling in the area around the Theewaterskloof Damn and saved the day.
Whatever the eventual solution and end may be, the Day Zero crisis is an indication for the rest of the world to consider the gravity of a water crisis and thus set up strong contingency measures to avoid experiencing what the people of Cape Town are undergoing now. Indeed, the days of procrastination must come to an end and give way to short term and long term plans to ensure sustainability for our societies.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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