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Cape Town Nurtures its Water Supply in Anticipation of Taps Running Dry

If the South African city can’t avert ‘Day Zero,’ it will be the world's first metropolis to run out of water

Upon entering the South African city of Cape Town via the Cape Town International Airport, you can immediately see that something is amiss.

If you need to use the restroom before heading out from the airport, you will notice that, while you may be able to flush the toilet, the taps in the washbasins have been switched off; waterless hand sanitizer has been provided as an alternative. This is just one of countless measures being taken across the city to address Cape Town’s current drought — the worst in over a hundred years.

Cape Town panoramaPhoto courtesy of Tim Chandler Table Mountain, the flat-topped plateau that overlooks Cape Town, captures onshore winds coming off the South Atlantic Ocean and helps produce rainfall that fill local rivers and aquifers. But a prolonged drought has severely depleted its water supply.

Rental car clerks wearing T-Shirts emblazoned with “Water Warrior” inform customers that cars have not been washed due to the water crisis.

Many businesses display signs noting their use of grey water or other non-potable water for various functions.

Hotels discourage guests from removing the bucket placed in shower enclosures so staff can utilize captured water for other purposes. Locals take five-minute showers and limit toilet flushes whenever possible.

The drought has dealt a blow to businesses in a world-renowned city that relies on tourism as a key source of income — and in a region where agriculture is still a major sector of the economy. The construction industry has also slowed, and contractors are starting to look into the legal ramifications of project delays for which the causal factor is nature.

Residents, too, are trying to adjust to a new water-weary lifestyle in Cape Town, where usage is restricted to 50 litres per person per day. Any usages exceeding the various restrictions incur a steep tariff, with costs reaching almost nine times the pre-drought price of water. These water restrictions, which have been in place since February 1, have done much to avert a full on crisis thus far — but if the drought does not abate, the city says taps may need to be switched off.

According to Cape Town's website, “Day Zero is the day that almost all of the taps in the city will be turned off and we will have to queue for water at approximately 200 sites across the peninsula.” Estimations for when Day Zero might occur have fluctuated, with projected dates pushed back a number of times because of drastic citywide reductions in water consumption. Most recently, the anticipated onset of Day Zero shifted from around July 2018 to early 2019.

Cape Town desperately needs substantial rain in order to return to more normal levels of water usage. The city's water supply relies on winter rainfall between April and September; having managed to stave off Day Zero for 2018, residents are praying for rain in the coming months. Cape Town hasn't experienced serious rainfall since 2014.

The Department of Water and Sanitation has initiated a number of projects to deal with the water crisis. In addition to imposing restrictions and tariffs, they have developed a communications plan, and reduced the pressure in the water system in order to decrease water output each time a tap is opened. The department has also established a disaster management plan, with one of its worst-case scenarios requiring that the taps be disconnected and households to collect 25 litres per person from designated points of distribution.

Cape Town's water supply is almost entirely dependent on rainfall. While the landscape in most of South Africa is arid, the city has a balmy Mediterranean climate. This is due to the imposing Table Mountain that overlooks the city. The flat-topped plateau, which comprises the northern end of the Cape Fold Mountain range, captures onshore winds coming off the South Atlantic Ocean and helps produce rainfall that fill local rivers and aquifers. Most of the city’s water comes from six big dams that hold up to 230 billion gallons of water.

dry reservoirPhoto courtesy of Zaian/Wikimedia CommonsA portion of Theewaterskloof reservoir, one of the six reservoirs that supply Cape Town with freshwater, was close to empty in March this year, revealing tree stumps and sand that are usually underwater.

The city’s Water Outlook 2018 report states that “dam levels rise principally from runoff from rainfall in catchment areas.” However, three consecutive years of drought, starting in 2015, have drastically reduced the water levels in these reservoirs. According to estimates by NASA, as of January this year, water levels in all six reservoirs were at 26 percent of capacity or less. “The largest reservoir, the source of roughly half of the city’s water — is in the worst condition, with the water level at just 13 percent of capacity,” the NASA report states.

Apart from imposing water use restrictions, the city has also instituted a water augmentation plan, which includes prioritizing groundwater extraction, pursuing desalinization on a larger scale, implementing water reuse, and exploring projects to augment surface water.

Ironically, South Africa's National Water Week, which took place March 17– 23, saw flash floods occurring in Johannesburg (an inland city situated near the center of the country) while Cape Town, at the southernmost tip of Africa, continued to experience a drought. Although climate variability is a feature of the South African weather system, recent drastic extremes may speak to larger weather trends, which some scientists believe are prompted (at least in part) by climate change.

The upside to the current water crisis is that residents of Cape Town have gained a much greater day-to-day awareness of their water usage, and their culture of enhanced water conservation will hopefully continue. Other parts of the country have also been positively affected by Cape Town's actions, at least from an awareness standpoint, since the city's information and communications campaigns reach beyond its borders. The city is also undergoing much-needed infrastructure upgrades that some argue should have been made years ago. Let's hope that steps taken now will improve Cape Town's water stability in future.

Aneesa Bodiat
Aneesa Bodiat is a freelance writer and editor from South Africa. She enjoys writing about culture, religion and how the global economy affects real people.

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