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As reservoirs run dry, Cape Town races to improve its climate resilience

Cape Town, South Africa is currently facing a looming water crisis that has potential to make it the first major city to shut off its municipal water supply. According to Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, taps across the city are expected to run dry on April 22 – less than 90 days away. This date has come to be known as “Day Zero”. The factor determining when exactly Day Zero occurs is the combined capacity of the dams servicing the Western Cape Province. Once the capacity has fallen below 13.5%, “…municipal water supply will be turned off for all but essential services, like hospitals,” Time Magazine reports. Even though 13.5% of the dams’ water capacity may remain, the last 10% of water in a dam is “unusable” due to silt and debris; therefore, essential services would be relying on what amounts to just 3.5% of combined dam capacity.

"Abstracting groundwater in bigger volumes means that the City can deliver more water to our residents at a lower cost for the benefit of all of Cape Town." (@PatriciaDeLille / January 11, 2018)
“Abstracting groundwater in bigger volumes means that the City can deliver more water to our residents at a lower cost for the benefit of all of Cape Town.” (@PatriciaDeLille / January 11, 2018)

As dam levels continue to fall, the City of Cape Town has been implementing a variety of programs which are intended to prevent or postpone Day Zero. One such effort has been for the municipal government to enforce a daily water usage limit of 23 gallons per person, which requires the typical person to consciously alter the amount of water they use each day. Unsurprisingly, the City of Cape Town has experienced limited success enforcing this restriction; to compensate, local officials have begun maintaining a live online map that indicates how much water individual households are using on a monthly basis in an effort to encourage competition between neighbors. The city also expects to have three new desalination plants operational by March, which could accumulatively supply up to 16 million liters of clean water daily. Despite these efforts, Mayor de Lille has “…warned that water consumption remains too high” to prevent the arrival of Day Zero.

According to local reports, the city council had originally been debating a proposal to implement an emergency drought levy that would tax Cape Town residents to compensate for the burdensome cost of trucking in water from other parts of the country. In a special meeting of Cape Town City Council on January 19, the proposal for a drought levy was rejected; Mayor de Lille has instead begun to advocate for “…punitive water tariffs to discourage reckless water usage”, adding that Day Zero has become imminent. Should Day Zero ultimately become a reality, Cape Town residents will have no choice but to wait in line at one of 200 checkpoints around the city, where they would be permitted to collect up to 25 liters of water per day. Though the city has contingency plans in place to address the looming water crisis, Day Zero has been described as a “catastrophic” event that would require thousands of tankers to supply water and could even necessitate evacuating a portion of the city’s population to other parts of the country where water is still in supply.

Cape Town’s historically low water supply has been largely caused by three years of continual drought. According to officials from the City of Cape Town, the best case scenario would be for residents to limit their collective water usage enough to postpone Day Zero until May, when the rainy season generally begins. Unfortunately, Cape Town is currently in the height of its summer season, and higher temperatures means that water is evaporating from the reservoirs at an increased rate. Climate scientist Peter Johnston told CBS News that even good rainfall would not end the crisis, because Cape Town is getting hotter.

“That increase in temperature is going to increase evaporation,” Johnston said. “Increased evaporation is going to mean that there is less water that’s available for our use.”

 

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