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Avoiding a water crisis: how Capetown avoided ‘Day Zero’

Cape Town, South Africa has now weathered a full year past its so-called “Day Zero,” the day when the municipal water supply for this major city was estimated to run out.

Most of Cape Town relies on dams to supply the city with water. Three years of inadequate rainfall caused dam levels to fall to 25% of capacity by late January 2018, and water was expected to drop to the critical 13.5% of capacity by April 12, 2018. At that critical point, water would only be supplied to critical services such as hospitals, and municipal taps would be shut off. Residents would be forced to line up for daily water rations of 25 liters per person at one of 200 collection points. Day Zero was defined as the point at which stricter regulations would begin because defining Day Zero at 0% capacity would only prompt action from residents when it was too late.

Residents in Capetown line up at collection points for water (Source: Flickr, Widad Sirkhotte)
Residents in Capetown line up at collection points for water (Source: Flickr, Widad Sirkhotte)

The city was able to avoid Day Zero – but only through a combination of aggressive water conservation and efficiency campaigns, and increased rainfall in 2018.

Day Zero was pushed back by a full month due to restrictions in allocation of water to surrounding agricultural areas. The city also saved water by implementing a steep tariff penalizing heavy users of water, prohibiting water for pools, lawns, and nonessential uses, and installing a new water pressure system. The campaign also ramped up awareness by advertising on electronic signs how many days the current water supply would last and releasing a citywide usage map allowing people to compare their usage to their neighbors.

Alongside city efforts to cut back on water usage, community efforts were equally important. People traded water-saving tips on social media, hotels advised tourists to take short showers and flush toilets only when necessary, and restaurants cut back on making pasta and boiled vegetables.

That rainy season brought average rainfall for the first time in four years, saving the city from its imminent water crisis, and allowing city officials to call off the Day Zero campaign indefinitely. However, experts warn that Cape Town is not out of the woods just yet. As water supplies have improved and people exit the emergency mindset, water usage has crept back up, but future droughts are inevitable. Fortunately, Cape Town residents may be more physically and mentally prepared for the next crisis. The Day Zero campaign remains in Cape Town local media and in their residents’ minds, especially for the more affluent residents who consume more media. Dam levels are now reported along with the weather forecast, helping to maintain long-term awareness of water scarcity issues.

Stanford Law School Professor Barton Thompson explained that the crisis in Cape Town was exacerbated by lack of alternatives for water supply that do not rely on local precipitation. Cape Town was also uniquely vulnerable because its excellent water conservation over the past few decades has allowed the city to grow without looking for more water, tightening its ability to cut back on water usage through efficiency. Cities in arid regions elsewhere, such as in central California, are similarly at risk for water scarcity if they depend largely on local rainfall when climate change is expected to prolong droughts. Diversifying the municipal water portfolio with water recycling, desalination, and groundwater can reduce risk of water shortages due to drought. Cape Town has also been investing in desalination plants and in groundwater projects which may help avoid another Day Zero. As water crises pop up all over the globe, we should be thinking about how we can create resilient water systems and encourage water-conserving behaviors such that we are prepared to avoid our own Day Zero.

Sources and Further Readings

Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ Water Crisis, One Year Later – CityLab

Life in Cape Town After Day Zero – CityLab

In Cape Town journalists count the cost of ‘Day Zero’ water narrative – Columbia Journal Review

How Cape Town found water saving California never dreamed of – LA Times

Running Out of Water: Cape Town, the U.S., and Drought – Stanford Law School