In Depth

Cape Town crisis: preparing for life without running water

In Depth: South African city introduces rationing ahead of April shutdown

Cape Town is facing a dystopian future - on 12 April, dubbed Day Zero, the South African city is expected to become the world’s first major metropolis to run out of water.

“For weeks, residents of South Africa’s second most populous urban area have been forming long lines to collect water every day,” ABC News reports.

Cape Town plans to shut its pipe network and instead designate 200 water collection points once dam levels reach 13.5%. The city’s four million residents will then be allocated 25 litres of water a day. For comparison, UK residents each use, on average, 150 litres of water a day.

Distribution is to be shut off to most of the city except for “key commercial areas and institutions such as hospitals”, says the Cape Times newspaper.

Some residents are stockpiling water from natural springs, while others are believed to be  turning to the black market. The city’s water and sanitation department said this weekend that it was investigating reports of retailers illegally selling municipal tap water, after people were seen lining up with empty bottles at two malls.

“This should be a wake-up call for city authorities and national governments around the world,” says the Financial Times. “Many of the world’s largest cities are acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change - longer droughts, heavier rainfall, rising sea levels, fiercer wildfires, worsening air pollution and searing heatwaves.”

As the crisis worsens, The Week investigates how life without running water might look.

Not a drop to drink

Cape Town politicians are bickering over the causes of the water shortages, but the main factors are declining rainfall and two decades of population growth. For the past three years, the province has been experiencing its worst drought on record. Meanwhile, Cape Town’s population has grown by almost 80% since 1995, from about 2.4 million to an estimated 4.3 million.

To make matters worse, reservoirs are draining faster than was predicted, because households and businesses have not conserved enough water during the current, dry summer, according to the journal Nature.

As Day Zero looms, many people in Cape Town are in “full panic mode”, yet that has not led to increased water conservation, reports South Africa’s Independent Online. According to Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, 60% of Capetonians are “callously” using more than the current recommended limit of 87 litres per day. De Lille is calling for local government to “force” citizens to limit their water usage.

Guidelines have been issued on how to cope after the shutdown: tips include fixing water leaks, cutting shower time, and only flushing the toilet when necessary, the BBC reports.

City officials say tourists will be guaranteed enough water for their essential daily needs, including access to drinking water and for personal hygiene, although “some swimming pools at hotels have been converted to salt (ocean) water”, says The Independent.

But there are no such reassurances for farmers and agricultural workers. South Africa’s wine industry alone employs about 300,000 people and forms the backbone of the provincial economy, reports Quartz

Rising anger

Cape Town’s water supply is dictated by seasonal changes, and many of the city’s water problems are expected to be alleviated during the winter season, from the end of May through to August, says fact-checking site Africa Check

However, Kevin Winter, a lecturer in Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, told South African news website GroundUp that “the reality is that the current water crisis in Cape Town shouldn’t be treated as a short-term occurrence, but rather as a long-term problem”, caused largely by climate change.

Meanwhile, anger is reportedly building among residents over the failure of authorities to share more information about how they are tackling the crisis. The South African says bottled water company SAB has offered to provide the Western Cape government with nine million litres of bottled water for public distribution from the day taps in the province get turned off. 

Authorities are opening a disaster operations centre today, and are ramping up contingency plans.

One resident told CNN: “The consensus is that everyone who can get out of town should do so in order to help lessen the burden.”

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