Crisis in Cape Town

Cape Town could be the first major city to run out of water as Day Zero looms

Katie Zugic, Media Assistant

Cape Town, South Africa is expected to be the first major city in the modern world to run out of water. In early January, residents were told that they had 90 days until Day Zero, but the day the government turns off the taps has been continuously creeping nearer as residents continue to exceed daily consumption quotas. If current consumption habits keep up, a global shortage of freshwater is projected within the foreseeable future – and this is an optimistic projection. Now we watch in abject horror, as the citizens of Cape Town struggle on the forefront of our greatest fear.

PC – Esa Alexander

Capetonians are currently restricted to 87 litres of water per day, which will decrease to 50 litres as of February 1st. Initially, Day Zero was projected to occur on April 21, but this has been moved up to April 12 as less than half of the residents have adhered to the 87 litre per day quota, as proposed by the government, thus leading to the failure of meeting the city-wide consumption goal of 500 million liters of water per day.

Once Capetonians reach Day Zero, when the Berg River Dam reaches 13.5 percent, a maximum allocation of 25 litres of water per person, per day, will be distributed from one of the 200 points of distribution (PODs). Given that more than 3.75 million people call Cape Town home, this means that more than 5000 individuals will aggregate at each POD on a daily basis, yielding a logistical nightmare for both water access and transport.

Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape fears the worst: “The question that dominates my waking hours now is: when Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy? And if there is any chance of still preventing it, what is it we can do?”

President Zuma was reluctant to declare a state of emergency, and some sources indicate that the government has not been completely transparent about the water shortage and have known of the impending crisis for quite some time.

PC: Mike Hutchings – Reuters

In 2009, the Western Cape Water Reconciliation Strategy was published, which outlined the city’s need to implement alternative infrastructure for water accessibility by 2019. The Berg River Dam has been the primary water supply for residents, and the strategy outlined the expected challenges surrounding the dam as posed by the consequences of a changing climate. Capetonians were projected to run out of water by 2019, if not sooner.

Officials have been criticized for their negligence to implement conservation strategies earlier, as a paper trail dating back as far as 2007 predicted an impending drought. Last year, in an attempt to dissuade excess water consumption, Cape Town even published a name-and-shame list of the 100 worst water offenders in the city, issuing fines for heavy water use.

The only way to put off Day Zero for a little bit longer is through a change in consumption, and Capetonians have not been very successful thus far. The agricultural industry has been particularly hard hit – farmers have been asked to cut back on irrigation, sell off cattle and livestock, and trim away buds and new growth on plants to better allocate the precious resource.

Desalination plants, treatment of effluent, and aquifer abstraction have all been proposed ideas as means to address the water crisis. But these strategies are both timely and costly, leaving Capetonians hoping for rain to mitigate the crisis until further intervention can be implemented.

The drought is thought to have been aggravated by a surging population, poor long-term planning, and limited investment in water management. Further scrutiny arose early Wednesday morning, as a burst water pipe leaked the precious resource for hours before authorities attended to the leak. Residents stood by with buckets, bottles, and anything they could use to salvage the leaching resource. A local resident spoke to the irresponsibility of this incident: “This is clean water. This is drinkable water and now it is wasted. The city talks about Day Zero yet we are wasting water.”

Dr. Robert Stewart, a professor with Lakehead’s Water Resource Science department spoke to The Argus about the crisis. He believes that the drought may have been aggravated by a culture of public overuse of water, and the inability of a municipality to invest in 21st century water infrastructure. He likens the crisis in Cape Town to an intervention: “now that people are being forced to conserve water, and quit their previous lifestyle cold turkey it can lead individuals to think less of the community, and more of what it takes for individual survival.” Water is a primal need, and water scarcity is causing primal instincts to take center stage.

Dr. Stewart believes that Cape Town is foreshadowing as to what is to come in the future, and can be used as a case study as to how we can respond to future crises as a global community. He believes the importance of social cohesion in a time of crisis is imperative to a community’s resilience.

In the face of climate change, we can only expect to see more extreme weather systems and more pervasive droughts, yet the discomfort of this reality leads people to look away. Acknowledging an impending crisis implies a sense of responsibility to do what one can in order to mitigate the effects, and it’s disconcerting at best. Ignoring the signs of climate change and pretending it’s not happening in favour of a more convenience-oriented lifestyle, will inevitably doom us to a similar fate if we do not re-evaluate our consumption habits.

The people of Cape Town are being forced to experience a cultural paradigm shift, as they move away from extreme consumption to highly rationed access to an essential resource. This attests to the importance of developing sustainable lifestyle choices and stresses the importance of proactive conservation efforts. Dr. Stewart offers the reminder that, “It’s not a lesser quality of life – we can live better by learning to use the life systems around us.” If, we as a society, can begin to make small but concerted changes towards a more sustainable future, then maybe the shock will not be so severe if and when day zero comes for us.

Bob Marley and the Wailers said it best: “You ain’t gonna miss your water, until the well runs dry.”