The Countdown To Day Zero Begins

By Cecilia Godoy

Cape Town, a South African city renowned for its natural endowments, is running a severe risk of being the first major city to run out of water in its reservoirs. Day Zero is the name given to the day that Capetonians’ home taps could run dry, by many estimates this could occur as quickly as in the next three months. City authorities have decided that “once the dams reach 13.5% capacity, municipal water supply will be turned off for all but essential services”[1]. Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, along with other executive figures, have determined that water allowance should be drastically cut to 50 liters a day starting next month, attempting to delay the inevitable. However, she claims that despite the several attempts and sanctions that have been put in place, “60% of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 liters per day”[2], the current recommended amount. In essence, 87 liters translates to keeping showers under 2 minutes, refraining from flushing the toilet unless necessary, and recycling bathing water wherever possible.

            City planners have long pointed out that Cape Town’s water system has not been able to keep up with the fast population growth the city has experienced in the last two decades. While this has been a vastly known issue, there was very little evidence and suspicion that such a dire situation could arise. However, the extremely rare three-year-long drought exacerbated the crisis to the point where a well-functioning water system would have a difficult time keeping up. The local government is racing to address the situation with desalination plants and groundwater collection projects, but it is unlikely that any of these initiatives will go live before Day Zero.

Additionally, there is a significant level of debate that the political climate also has exacerbated the water crisis in the province. Cape Town is located in the Western Cape, the only South African province run by the Democratic Alliance – the rest of the country is under the leadership of the ANC, the African National Congress. The relationship between these two political parties is complicated, as the water crisis shows to many South African citizens. Two levels of governance – the Western Cape province and the City of Cape Town – took a preemptive stance on the water shortage issue, but these actions failed at the level of national government[2]. Provinces don’t have the power to control the water allocation to agriculture. In 2015, the city of Cape Town was allocated 60% of the water from the Western Cape’s Water supply system, with most of the rest being allocated to long-term crops[3]. When the drought began to take its toll on the provincial dam levels, there was no effort from the national government to curtail agricultural water use. Cape Town shows some of the best water saving levels in the world, but without the compliance of the national government, its efforts are in vain.

Had the national government been as proactive as the provincial and city levels of governments, it would appear that this crisis could have been mitigated. Appropriate water allocations would have made more water available to Cape Town and with the support of many federal agencies, more funding could have been allotted to find new techniques of acquiring water and delaying Day Zero[4]. Cape Town illustrates how water crisis is not only a matter of climatic conditions. In many instances, natural disasters have many different facets and perspectives to truly understand them, including politics.