In mid-April, Cape Town will almost certainly hit ‘Day Zero’. The city of four million people will be dangerously close to running out of water, and the government will turn off supply to about a million homes: 75% of the city.

How did we get here?

This apocalyptic vision has taken place in a capital previously described as one of the world’s top green cities. The “Democratic Alliance” – the party that has been in power since 2006 – took pride in its policies on conservation and sustainability. The population has blossomed by 30% since the early 2000s, but water consumption has remained steady.

Across the globe, progressive governments  have sensed that major action needs to be taken to counter-act the affects of climate change, but the ferocity and speed of South Africa’s three-year drought has caught everyone off guard. The government had plans to diversify its water supply with boreholes and desalination plants after 2020, but they’ve been beaten by the historic drought, normally expected to take place once every 384 years.

Cape Town’s water supply is almost entirely dependent on a six dam reservoir system. On the 16th of April, it’s predicted that capacity of the system will fall to just 13.5% – enough to trigger water being shut off. The biggest dam in the system, Theewaterskloof Dam, is almost entirely dry. That dam alone supplies water for more than half of the population of Cape Town.

From Jonathan Watts at The Guardian: “One side of the lake is now a desert. Devoid of life, this is a landscape of sand dunes, cracked earth and dead trees. It takes more than 30 minutes walk under a burning sun to reach the last pool of water, which is barely wide enough to skim a stone across. In what looks like a dark failure of evolution, it is ringed by the carcasses of stranded fish. On the other side, by the dam wall, the water is nearly 10 metres deep, but the shoreline is receding at the rate of the 1.2m a week, leaving the bed exposed to the sun. The afternoon winds once attracted sail boats; now they whip up white dust storms that envelop much of the valley.”

Before and after Day Zero

Since the close of the last wet season, Cape Town residents have faced restrictions of 87 litres a day. Despite the threat of hefty fines, only about half of the city actually stuck to this. The mayor, Patricia de Lille, said the city had reached “the point of no return”. Residents are now asked to limit use to 50 litres a day.

The NSW Government has said the average NSW person uses 340 litres a day.

From one point of view, the government has been wildly successful. In less than a year they’ve cut the city’s daily water consumption from 1,200 million litres to 540 million. Still, the daily life of an average Capetonian has changed dramatically. Supermarkets have introduced limits on bottled water. Hardware shops are sold out of water tanks and pool covers. There’s a year long wait on borehole drillers. Dehumidifers are out of stock.

Hotels don’t let their guests take baths. The entire city has adopted a ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow’ policy. Radio stations play songs of just two minutes to help residents time their showers. The shower water run-off is collected to be re-used in the washing machine or toilet. An online water consumption map lets neighbours check on each other’s usage.

When Day Zero kicks in, the city will build 200 water collection points to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres per person per day within 200 metres of a citizen’s home. This will be major economic burden. The plan has been drawn up by emergency services, the military and scientists. Four risks have been identified: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy. There are plans in place to mitigate all four risks.

Government infrastructure, such as hospitals, will continue to have a supply.

From there, it’s a matter of hope that the new wet season in May will bring fresh rainfall, but normal seasonal patterns have become a joke the last few years. Even so, one season of rainfall is unlikely to completely reverse the affects of the drought. No matter what, Cape Town is facing a drier future, and the government has to catch up.

Has this happened before? 

Brazil has faced tough water sanctions in the past, entering a state of emergency a year ago. Their reservoir dropped to just 6% of capacity. In California, Los Angels has been hit by major droughts and had water restrictions. Climate change isn’t entirely to blame for these situations. A perfect storm of poor infrastructural planning, population growth and climate change have brought about disaster.

There are success stories. Australia is used to drought narratives. Melbourne was severely hit by the ‘millennium drought’ that hit between 2001 and 2010. Water consumption dropped by 50% during this time, and some of the temporary water restrictions were made permanent. I know many of you reading this are from Queensland and New South Wales, and will have many stories on how local governments have managed droughts in the past.

Cape Town should generally be regarded as a red flag for the rest of the world. Our children and grandchildren are unlikely to live in a world where water is so freely available.

Tracking your water usage

Here’s a few numbers to kick you up the bum:

  • A five minute shower uses about 45 litres of water. If you were living in Cape Town right now, you’d have almost used up your entire daily allocation. A timer will help curb your water use.
  • An average bath uses about 80 litres of water.
  • A toilet flush uses about 5 litres of water. We all need to get used to living in a world where we are unbothered by each other’s wee. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.
  • Washing your dishes by hand uses about 9 litres of water. A dishwasher can use up to double that. Washing machines are more difficult to track, but can use up to 55 litres of water in an average wash.
  • Watering your garden for just five minutes will use up about 50 litres of water. And gardeners beware: traditionally, watering gardens are the first things to go when a government is putting in water restrictions. Take a note from the Capetonians and use grey water instead.

We’ll keep you up to date with Cape Town as the situation develops.

In the meantime, be aware that water is finite. Share your water saving tips below. With your help, I’d love to build a Slow News Weekly resource for responsible citizenry, and water saving tips sounds like the perfect place to start. I’d love to hear from you!

We’ve done previous deep dives into Australia’s relationship to climate change and our latest energy policy, the NEG.


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Photo at the top thanks to Guardian Media Services. 

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