Countdown to Day Zero

March 2, 2018
Brian S. McGrath with AP reporting
Cape Town residents stock up on water at a local spring ahead of Day Zero. The city is rushing to upgrade its water systems and building desalination plants and facilities for recycling water.
MORGANA WINGARD—GETTY IMAGES

It is late at night. People in Cape Town, South Africa, line up to collect water from a spring. One by one they fill their plastic bottles. Each person can take up to 13 gallons. Security guards stand by to enforce the rules. In a few months, that amount will be cut in half.

Cape Town is a city of 4 million people. It is running out of water. For three years, the city has faced a drought. It is the worst in a century. Local reservoirs are mostly sand and cracked earth. Officials are telling residents to conserve water. Otherwise, the city will one day be forced to turn off the supply to homes and businesses. That day is being called Day Zero. At press time, Day Zero was expected to be June 4. But the date may change based on water levels in local dams.

“There are a lot of people who have been in denial,” said Shirley Curry. She waited at a spring to get her share of water. “Now they suddenly realize this is for real.”

STOCKING UP People line up to collect water at one of Cape Town’s natural springs.

MIKE HUTCHINGS—REUTERS

On Day Zero, each person’s daily allowance will drop to about 6.5 gallons. (In contrast, the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day.) Lines at the city’s 200 water-collection points will likely get even longer.

Some places will not be included in the cutoff. The water will keep running in hospitals and schools. It will stay on in poor settlements, too. This is to prevent disease. Areas popular with tourists may also have water. More than 10 million people visit Cape Town each year. Tourism fuels nearly 10% of South Africa’s economy.

PICTURE PERFECT? The water crisis could scare off the millions of tourists who visit Cape Town each year and support the city’s economy.

BEN1183—GETTY IMAGES

Something Precious

Other regions of South Africa are donating water to Cape Town. But the city needs a long-term solution to its crisis.

Across the city, people are struggling to save water. They are taking 90-second showers. They are washing clothes less often. Using tap water to wash vehicles or fill swimming pools is illegal. Those caught using too much water are fined.

For some residents, rationing now feels normal. Kelson da Cruz keeps one container of water near the shower. Another he uses for brushing his teeth and washing his face. He uses non-drinking water to flush the toilet.

DRIED OUT Cape Town’s Theewaterskloof Dam was once the city’s main water supply. A lengthy drought has left the reservoir dry.

HALDEN KROG—PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES

Not everyone is being careful. In January, only about 55% of residents were saving enough water. “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them,” Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille said at the time. On February 14, the city noted that many more people were doing their part. But it added: “We now need all our residents to join in the savings drive.”

Public officials also share responsibility for the water shortage, experts say. They failed to prepare for the drought. Now the city is rushing to build facilities where seawater can be made fit for drinking.

Da Cruz sees a lesson in the crisis. “I think South Africa is, for the first time, really catching up with the rest of the world,” he said. “They have to change their habits. You can’t just take for granted something so precious.”

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