‘Day Zero’ and the Water Wake Up Call from Cape Town

Feb 5th, 2018 | By | Category: Water Issues

By Suzanne York.

[photo credit: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

[photo credit: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

The allegory couldn’t be more fitting – humanity burying our collective heads in the sand, as the planet heats up and water scarcity becomes more of a reality in many places around the globe.

For the past week or so, there have been numerous headlines on the water tap running dry in Cape Town, South Africa. If it actually runs out of water, it will be the first for a major city in a developed country.


The causes range from population growth to climate change to overdevelopment, problems more and more cities around the world are increasingly confronting.

National Georgraphic sums it up well:

“Population growth and a record drought, perhaps exacerbated by climate change, is sparking one of the world’s most dramatic urban water crises, as South African leaders warn that residents are increasingly likely to face “Day Zero.” That’s the day, now projected for mid-April, when the city says it will be forced to shut off taps to homes and businesses because reservoirs have gotten perilously low—a possibility officials now consider almost inevitable.”

Even CNN notes that a growing population has contributed to the water crisis.

Watch this short video from The Guardian on what’s happening:


It is a cautionary tale for humanity. We can make all the right moves, but there are things we cannot control, given the acceleration of manmade climate change. Cape Town was doing the right thing, implementing strong environmental policies and regulating water usage, and was considered on of the world’s top “green” cities. But it didn’t diversify its water sources and city officials thought there would be plenty of time to do so.

Yet to their surprise, the city is now facing the reality of limiting residents to just over 13 gallons of water a day, down from 23 gallons per day (in California, average residential water use is 85 gallons per person per day). Despite that, perhaps a population of four million people living in a desert climate is not the smartest move to make, even with successful conservation efforts. We live in a new climate now (pun intended); Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Perth, Nairobi, take heed.

Climate Change and Water Scarcity

According to the United Nations, water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population today and is expected to rise due to global warming. In Mexico City, with a population of over 21 million people, residents have running water part of the day, while one in five get just a few hours from their taps a week. Then there are cities that are traditionally relied on glaciers to keep up water supplies, such as La Paz, Bolivia. But glaciers there are shrinking due to climate change, limiting the water supply and leading to a state of emergency in 2016.   The list of cities that have recently dealt with, or are currently dealing with, water scarcity include Sao Paolo, Lima and Melbourne.

Making matters worse in Cape Town and many cities today is deep inequality that surely will boil over when ‘Day Zero’ comes. Cape Town is planning to use the police and military to protect water collecting stations. How long can the wealthy pay for water while other poor residents are forced to go with little, or without this most precious of resources?


[photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons user Jonathan Gill]

Four million and growing? [photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons user Jonathan Gill]

The Anthropocene

We are living in a geologic era called The Anthropocene because human impact has altered the Earth, and also because of human hubris. Many people forget that humans are part of nature, and think we’re above it. Speaking of nature, it behooves us to consider what happens to flora and fauna during a crisis like this, how other species suffer from our hubris, and if they too can recover.

A point made by Mike Muller, former director of South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs should be taken as a warning for the rest of the world – “Nature isn’t particularly willing to compromise,” Muller told the New York Times. “There will be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get hammered.”

Cape Town isn’t prepared. Neither, it appears, are a whole host of other cities and communities. And yet we mostly go on with business as usual – with many obsessing over growth – and stick our heads in the sand, hoping our own city escapes the worst. Perhaps Cape Town will be a wake-up call to take action, sooner rather than later, because things are changing faster than we think. Unpredictability is the new norm.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.


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