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Avoiding Day Zero: Cape Town’s Crisis and the Challenge for the Rest of Us

In December, I went on a trip to South Africa. I travelled around the country, spending the last few days in Cape Town. Driving into the city, the first thing I noticed was Cape Town’s stunning geography; the city is surrounded by ocean on one side and a flat-topped mountain on the other. The next thing I noticed were the billboards that obscured this view with ominous, almost apocalyptic warnings about the approaching “Day Zero.”

These billboards were all referring to the severe drought that Cape Town is currently facing, and the day when the city will turn off all taps, forcing residents to wait in line for daily rations of water. While strong water conservation measures have been pushing this date back, it is still just months away. According to the city government’s online tracker, as of February 12, Cape Town’s reservoirs are at only 24.9 percent capacity, and Day Zero is expected to arrive on or around June 4.

Even as a tourist, the drought was impossible to ignore. Many public restrooms turned off their taps months ago, leaving out hand sanitizer for people to use instead of washing their hands. The first thing I saw when leaving our hotel each day was a sign tracking how close the reservoirs were to drying up.

A sign in the hotel lobby tracked Cape Town’s falling dam levels.

The impact of the drought is much more dramatic for people who live in Cape Town. Lines to fill containers at natural springs are already hours long, supermarkets are selling out of bottled water within minutes of unpacking each new shipment, and current restrictions limit residential use of municipal water to 50 liters (about 13 gallons) per person per day. According to the World Health Organization, this is the bare minimum needed to drink, cook with, and maintain proper hygiene. In comparison, the average American uses 65 liters of water every time they shower.

Some of the reasons this drought has been so severe are specific to Cape Town’s geography and politics, but scientists also agree that climate change has played a role in the drought’s severity. Over the last 100 years in Cape Town, average temperatures have increased and rainfall has decreased. Climate scientists at the University of Cape Town have found that similar droughts are likely to be more common in South Africa in the future, and that rainy years will be less common.

The severity of this water crisis is unprecedented for a modern city of Cape Town’s size. However, as our planet continues to warm, Cape Town is unlikely to be the only place forced to cope with the disappearance of basic necessities. Even as drought contributes to drinking water scarcity in Cape Town, heavy rains and sea level rise threaten freshwater resources in cities like Miami by contaminating aquifers with saltwater. Drought, extreme heat and severe storms are all expected to hinder the productivity of important agricultural regions. People living along the shoreline – including more than 10 million Americans and hundreds of millions of people worldwide –  face a future where they can’t even take dry land for granted.

Cape Town may be within arm’s reach of Day Zero, but many parts of the world are nearing Day 1,000 or 10,000. To delay the day of reckoning, and to reduce the impact when it arrives, we will need to face the future with clear eyes and to be much smarter about how we use our resources.

One reason that Cape Town has been able to delay Day Zero is that the city has been working hard to reduce water consumption for the last 20 years, and not only during times of drought. Capetonians’ current allotment of 13 gallons of water per day is extremely difficult to live on, but 80 to 100 gallons – the daily average in the U.S. – is certainly more than we need. While our agricultural lands are still fertile and productive, we have to learn how to stop wasting one-third of our food. The same is true for almost everything we buy and consume. The time to start thinking about excessive consumption of resources, and to prepare for and limit the impact of global warming, is now. We have enough time to avoid being taken by surprise, so long as we start making responsible decisions now to protect future generations from catastrophe.

Splash photo: Lilla Frerichs via PublicDomainPictures.net