Disastrous Day Zero deferred, Cape Town still on the edge

A Small Victory but a Huge Relief 

After months of effort by the administration and residents alike, Cape Town, South Africa has an unexpected victory. Day Zero, the day when Cape Town would run out of water entirely, has been pushed forward from August this year to sometime in 2019, giving residents hope of better chances of 'survival' in the coming days.

Day Zero Horror 

The Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, predicted in October 2017 that the city would run out of water by the following March - Day Zero. Since then, the date has been shifted from April 21st, to May 11th, to July 9th. August 27th was another potential Day Zero. With strict water conserving methods put into place since October 2017 and those yielding satisfactory results, the city has possibly dodged the 'Day Zero' bullet in 2018. A small victory but definitely a huge relief to Capetonians!  

However, the city continues to be on the edge, with likelihood of the disastrous day actually happening sometime in 2019 unless it is averted by benevolent rain gods this coming winter. 

What Caused the Water Scarcity?

There is a drought in South Africa, of course. 2017, as well as the preceding two, three and four-year average rainfall in the region are the lowest since 1981. Rainfall in this country is a phenomenon that is related to El-nino and La-nina episodes. [El Niño events are associated with a warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific, while La Niñaevents are the reverse, causing a sustained cooling of these same areas.] So El-Niño brings drought to South Africa, while La Niña brings wet conditions. 

However, the well-below-average rainfall of 2016 and 2017 occurred during a weak La Niña and a weak El-Niño respectively. This does not reflect the expected El-Niño-rainfall relationship. 

So what caused the multi year drought? Environmentalists believe that human-caused warming may have contributed substantially to the very warm climate conditions in South Africa, resulting in severe drought conditions. 

What We Have Learned from the Water “Guinea Pigs” of Cape Town

“Today, residents of Cape Town feel like they were guinea pigs,” says Klaus Reichardt, CEO and founder of Waterless Co., makers of no-water urinals. “This water situation was thrust upon them and they had no one but themselves to address the challenge.”

To closely look at the strategies Capetonians adopted to make such a deferment possible, is not just beneficial but imperative, given UN's prediction that two-thirds of the world’s population will face daily water shortage by 2025. Water experts from around the world are now turning to Cape Town to see how residents made this happen. Here are some of the findings:

  • The town's main strategy was to severely restrict water use through rationing.Today, residents are using nearly 50% less water than they were in 2015 and this is expected to go higher. The town initially allowed a delivery of about 23 gallons (87 liters) per person per day in October 2017. Since February 2018, daily water use is restricted to 50 liters or less per person whether at home, work, school or elsewhere.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses 100 gallons of water per day. That means a family of four consumes 400 gallons of water in 24 hours! As a nation, China and India have higher water footprints than the US. However, US is the highest per capital water consumer of the world. 

  • Residents were repeatedly bombarded with media campaigns on the impending Day Zero.  
  • Virtually every public restroom in Cape Town now has water-saving aerators installed; hand sanitizers to use instead of hand washing; high-performance toilets, and waterless urinals.
  • Most all restaurants use disposable utensils and cardboard chinaware to eliminate dishwashing; pasta dishes are rarely cooked because they require too much water, and vegetables can be steamed, never boiled, because less water is necessary.
  • Small children bathe in outdoor buckets; excess water is used to irrigate gardens; bath plugs have been removed in residential and hotel bathtubs to discourage bathing.
  • Penalties imposed in the event of what is thought to be an inappropriate or excessive use by the administration.
  • The very rich purchase water from abroad and have built their own storage tanks. This step benefited all of Cape Town because it took them off the water “grid.”
  • Cape Town sought help from neighboring farmers in the form of water donations. Farmers are donating water from private dams.
  • City also reduced water waste by improving infrastructure. By fixing leaks and reducing water pressure in pipes, the city was able to make big strides towards meeting its targets.

“Our water loss rate is at 14%, which is the lowest in the country — the average water loss rate in South Africa is about 35%, so we’re far below that,” says Xanthea Limberg,  who has been serving on the City Council for the past six years.

  • The administration did its part by bringing additional supply online from the Molteno Reservoir as the main source of water Theewaterskloof reservoir dried up. Many new water supply projects (including desalination plants) have been initiated. 
  • Even artists contributed their bit. Ten famous South African artists sped up their popular tracks to last exactly 120 seconds to make sure people shower for two minutes or less.

In January 2018, the local government started publishing water usage data online - City Water Map -  in an attempt to get Capetonians to use even less water and to increase awareness of water waste.The Water Map shows current water usage data of most homes in Cape Town, down to specific address. Attempting to harness the power of social pressure to encourage dramatic behavior change has met with severe criticism, albeit seems to be working. These measures have created a culture that is obsessed with water usage and is resulting in behavioral change in favor of water conservation. Driving a dirty car is now viewed as a badge of honor.