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Time is trickling for Cape Town’s water supply

In Cape Town, South Africa, the day known as Day Zero is approaching fast. This ominous sounding day is the day the city is projected to run out of water. Water scarcity is not a new problem by any means, but has for the past months recieved a lot more media attention than usual, as the metropolis of Cape Town has been struck by it in a terrifying manner. Even though Day Zero has been delayed several times, most recently dating  from the 16th of April to the 11th of May, it is a day estimated to arrive sooner rather than later…

Most people are probably aware of the fact that a large portion of our planet’s surface is covered by water. Around 70 % of it in fact. With only this information one would think that lack of water should not be as big of a problem as it is. The fact that water scarcity is a source of suffering for a substantial amount of people might become a bit more understandable once realization strikes that only around 2.5 % of the water that surrounds our world is fresh and drinkable. Perhaps it becomes even clearer once understood that only about 1 % of this fresh and drinkable water is easily accessible for people. The problematic water situation on our planet can be summed up by repeating National Geographic’s claim that only around a measly 0.007 % of water worldwide is available for our planet’s entire population. That paints quite a bleak picture.

Arid regions are particularly affected by water scarcity for obvious reasons and many African countries have struggled greatly with this problem. Across the African continent one can find a plethora of examples which would illustrate the problematic situation, but none better and more relevant than what is happening right now in the South African city of Cape Town, a city that is quickly running out of water. At the moment Cape Town predicts it will be shutting off tap water for homes and businesses on the 11th of May, known as Day Zero, as its water reservoirs have reached extremely low levels. Already, inhabitants are required to restrict their daily water use to 50 litres per day.

It might come as a surprise that Cape Town, a metropolis with almost four million inhabitants and one of Africa’s wealthiest cities, is affected by water scarcity in such an alarming way. How could it happen? At the core of the problem lies a skyrocketing population increase and extreme drought, something that may have been intensified by climate change. Even though the place is very dry, rainy weather has in the past created a Mediterranean environment in the area. For the past three years however, the climate has been characterized by low rainfall and drought, something which has contributed to making storage levels in the dams of Cape Town drop to below 30 %. While it has been clear for years that the population growth of the city coupled with drier weather has made it vital to find new water sources, the officials of Cape Town have not taken these warnings seriously and have not prepared sufficiently. All this has led to the desperate situation they find themselves in today.

The scenario the city is facing is so critical that the head of Cape Town’s disaster operations claims he has never experienced a bigger crisis and is preparing for water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and even anarchy due to competition for resources. The city is among other things preparing to set up around 200 water collection stations which are supposed to stand in for piped water and provide people with the 25 litres of water – which they are legally guaranteed per day. This is something that will be extremely expensive for the city as it will not be selling the water but giving it away. Even though this wouldn’t bankrupt Cape Town it could have severe economic consequences and affect jobs and businesses.


Because of all this, the life of an average resident in Cape Town has changed in volumes (literally)! With people going to the store and buying insane amounts of water bottles in panic, supermarkets have been introducing limits on how much water one customer can buy. Hardware stores have been selling water out of water tanks and hotels now require their guests to only take showers rather than baths. For now, the city is preparing a temporary desalination plant that will convert saltwater from the ocean into drinkable freshwater, but it  will first be ready to start producing water in March.

The people of Cape Town have a lot of challenges ahead. Whatever the main cause of the crisis might be, whether it be climate change or population growth, one thing is obvious – it is something that must be brought to attention. It seems clear that things will get worse before they get better for the South African capital, but their predicament should at least be an eye-opening indicator for what might be in store for other cities around the world if they don’t start preparing .. and fast.

Alexander Strandman

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