Tapped Out: Cape Town Almost Officially Out Of Water

Tapped Out: Cape Town Almost Officially Out Of Water

Cape Town, the second most populous city in South Africa and the country’s legislative capital, is on the road to becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water.

The metro area’s 3.7 million residents woke up Thursday morning to an alarming announcement from city officials, stating that there are only 95 days left before the city officially reaches Day Zero - the day when the city will be forced to turn off most of the taps and start rationing water.

Cape Town, which is currently in its third consecutive year of drought, announced that it would begin implementing emergency measures, which include marking and preparing about 200 water collection points throughout the city. Day Zero, currently forecasted to fall on April 21, will mark the time when Capetonians will be required to queue for a rationed supply of water.

Mayor, Patricia de Lille, said that the city has reached “a point of no return” during a press briefing on Thursday.

"Day Zero is now very likely," she said. "Despite our urging for months, 60 percent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 liters per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.”

If the current projections are correct, and the city of Cape Town turns off its municipal water supply lines, it will be the first time in modern history this has happened to a city in the developed world.

According to Time Magazine, city planners have long been pointing out the fact that Cape Town’s water capacity hasn’t been keeping up with its rapid population growth. With a population of 3.7 million, which has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, the Western Cape region’s water supply system was already working at full capacity.

Cape Town’s water supply dams, which are part of the wider water supply network of Western Cape, consist of 6 major and 8 minor dams. The major dams, the largest of them being the Theewaterskloof and Voëlvlei dams, provide 99.6% and the minor dams 0.4% of the city’s combined water storage capacity.

The region, usually experiencing heavy rainfall during the winter months, has entered its third year of drought. With climatologists calling the drought a “once in a millennium” event, experts agree that even the best-planned water supply system would have had operating problems under these circumstances.

Nestled on the Atlantic coast and known as the “place where the clouds gather” in precolonial times, Cape Town’s winters were traditionally abundant with rain. According to climate researchers at the University of Cape Town, low-rainfall years have become twice as frequent in the city over the past century. With climate projection models predicting a shift towards a drier, more drought-prone climate in the future, anthropogenic climate change is widely believed to be the cause of the devastating situation.

The city released a statement saying that, during the past week, only 39% of Cape Town’s residents used less than 87 liters of water per person per day, the maximum recommended amount of water. A sharp drop from the 54% during the first week of January, Cape Town’s average daily collective consumption has increased to 618 million liters per day.

Ramping up pressure management at the water supply system is one of the ways the government plans on stretching out the city’s supply. According to a statement from city officials, 25 areas across the city that could benefit from this pressure management technology have been identified, and contractors have been brought in to speed up the process.

Water management devices are also being fitted to the water supply of properties using more than 10.5 kiloliters per month. Groundwater abstractions from aquifers around Cape Town are also taking place, along with the construction of three desalination plants.

The city council has also banned garden watering, car washing and the use of both private and public swimming pools. Other emergency measures include advising Capetonians to limit showers to under 2 minutes, to avoid using washing machines and dishwashers, and to refrain from flushing the toilet unless absolutely necessary.

The alternative water supply systems currently undergoing construction around the city have been dubbed “too ambitious” by engineers and ecologists, with Umvoto earth sciences consultancy director John Holmes saying that the current plan to replace the water supply of the city in six months “is just not possible.”

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party in South African politics that currently runs the Cape Town government, has been widely criticized for its untimely and ineffective response to Cape Town’s water crisis. The extremely high cost of building and subsequently operating desalination plants have also been met with disapproval.

Seeing how a large percentage of Capetonians have failed to take part in the state-wide water saving measures, ecologists, hydrologists, climatologists, and engineers have been working round the clock to come up with alternative measures that would be more efficient in the long-run.

Jasper Slingsby, an ecologist at the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) said that up to three months of the city's water needs is lost through invasive species. Citing recent studies done in the area, Slingsby said that research has proved that pine forestry has been proven to be the invasive species that’s the most harmful to the South African economy.

"In terms of clearing, I think it would be a hell of a lot cheaper than desalination or any of the alternatives the city is thinking of," Slingsby said. 

What the future holds for the Cape Town area and its residents still remains unclear. Seeing how South Africa's brightest weather forecasters and climate scientists forecasted in April that the area would have a wetter-than-average winter, any predictions made for the upcoming rainy season beginning in May should be taken with a grain of salt.