The Cape Town Water Crisis: Delaying Day Zero

In the Broadway musical Urinetown, people line up to use the toilet because a 20 year old drought has made private toilets a thing of the past. And when the protagonist rises up finally and allows unrestricted toilet use, the water supply completely evaporates. The final scenes ominously hint at more worrisome issues for the citizens, who, once concerned only with toilet use, most grapple with dying of thirst among other problems.

Although Urinetown is a satire, residents of Cape Town might see it as a scary prediction of their future if Day Zero arrives. As apocalyptical as it sounds, it does accurately embody the looming doomsday scenario: Day Zero is when the taps run dry. How? An unexpected three year drought, starting in 2014, drastically depleted the six dams that serve Cape Town. Whereas 20 years ago water management in Cape Town could rely on seasonal rainfall patterns and small conservation measures, it is now relying on unreliable rain and big changes.

Since Day Zero has been first predicted in early 2018, it has been continuously delayed. Projections now suggest Day Zero will occur in 2019. And in recent weeks, many are rejoicing in water returning to the dry dams. In the words of Anton Bedell, minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs, and Development Planning:  “It’s…good to see Clanwilliam dam at 20.4%. A few weeks ago the dam was below 6%.” The other dams have reflected similar increases, but the relief is only temporary as the dams await more rain—if it will come.

Theewaterskloof dam in February 2018 (source: 2oceanvibes)

Theewaterskloof dam in February 2018 (source: 2oceanvibes)

Waters return in early June (source: Storm Report)

Waters return in early June (source: Storm Report)

The biggest assistance in delaying Day Zero is restrictions implemented on February 1st. The main restriction was the allowance of 50 liters, a little more than 13 gallons, of water per person. Comparatively, the average individual in the United States uses 80-100 gallons of water a day and the average family over 300 gallons a day.  The question of how Americans end up using so much illustrates just how little 13 gallons is for a Capetonian. For example, imagine the average bathroom break. A toilet flush requires at least 1.6 gallons with water efficient models, but if it is an older model it will need up to 4 gallons. Then you will wash your hands with about 3 gallons of water. Considering most people take at least four bathrooms breaks a day, that’s already 18.4 gallons used in one day (on a water efficient toilet): more than what one Capetonian is allowed in a single day.

So it is no wonder people are following the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule and putting reminders in bathroom stalls around Cape Town. Even restaurant and bar washroom taps are shut off. But it is not just in the bathroom that changes are being made. Any use of municipal drinking water for irrigation, watering, hosing down paved surfaces, washing vehicles, or filling a private pool is not allowed. Agricultural users have to decrease water usage by 60% and commercial places by 45% compared to their pre-drought usage in 2015. And for residential units that use too much, you’ll face a fine or have to install water management devices.

And globally, Cape Town is a sign of the future. As population increases, especially in urban centers, water resources are straining to accommodate.  This is against a backdrop of climate changes that favor extreme weather events like frequent droughts. What might have worked in the past, is not necessarily the solution for the future.  California, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Mexico City are just some cities that may be the next unwilling host of Day Zero. And water shortages lead to other problems such as famine and violence. The International Panel on Climate Change predicts the Middle East and North Africa will face the most severe water shortage problems. And already, many Somalis have become climate change refugees—leaving their rural farms for the capital, Mogadishu, in hope of different sources of income with farming no longer possible. Millions more are projected in the years to come as climate change makes itself even more apparent.

It is a bleak picture, but subtle changes are happening as global leaders are becoming more aware of the looming water crisis. But we can also start at home with our own water usage. Maybe you don’t need to take a long bath after a hard day and use 36 gallons of water simply to unwind. Instead, take a quick shower and find something else to help you relax. The small changes might sound silly but it is the little things that matter as Capetonians will tell you.


TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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