The Current

Cape Town is about to become the first major city in the world to run out of water

Cape Town's mayor has been issuing dire warnings to citizens for months to keep the amount of water they use to less than 87 litres per person per day. The city is predicted to run out of water on April 21.
The amount of water in Voelvlei Dam near Cape Town, one of the region's largest water catchments, is nearing a critical level. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

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"Day Zero."

That's what residents of Cape Town are calling the day when their city is predicted to run out of water. And that day is coming soon — the projected date is April 21.

The city's mayor, Patricia de Lille, has been issuing dire warnings to citizens for months to keep the amount of water they use to less than 87 litres per person per day. But she says that 60 per cent of residents have "callously" not followed the rules.

Cape Town City Mayor Patricia de Lille (centre) talks to media on Jan. 11 at a site in Mitchells Plain, about 25 kilometres from the city centre, where the council has ordered drilling into an aquifer to tap water. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

"We have really reached a point of no return," says de Lille. "It's quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero. We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We now have to force them to stop wasting water."

Environmental scientist and climatologist Simon Gear says he and other climate scientists have been sounding the alarms about the water situation in Cape Town for nearly two decades.

"This is quite scary," Gear tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "Anyone who works in climate change knows that we've given lots of quite doomsday-esque scenarios in the last two decades. This is the first one which I've really seen come true."

'Going to be an absolute nightmare'

Climate change forecasts predict that Cape Town will get hotter and drier over the next 50 years. The city's population boom has also added to the water shortage not only in terms of water use but also because the ground is increasingly covered with hard materials that reduce absorption of groundwater.

If the city's water does run out, people will have to line up at one of 200 distribution sites every day to get their water allotment of 25 litres per person, per day. Those working in high rise buildings where there will be no water for flush toilets will likely have to wait in line on the side of the road to use a chemical toilet.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, a key water supply for Cape Town, has been largely dry for months, as seen in this April 2017 photo. The city announced new water restrictions last week, saying it is likely it will have to turn off most taps on April 21. (Halden Krog/Associated Press)

"Just from a purely logistical point of view, it's going to be an absolute nightmare," says Gear.

Gear says that even though it's been raining in Cape Town, precipitation won't lead to a quick turnaround. Rainfall usually ramps up in May, but even with a good rainy season, it will take a while for dams to fill up to usable levels.

'Slap in the face'

Rupert Koopman lives in Cape Town and is a botanist with CapeNature, a government organization that maintains wilderness areas and public nature reserves in the Western Cape Province.

For two years, his family has been using less than the recommended 87 litres of water per person per day, and Koopman is disappointed that his fellow citizens haven't been as diligent. He says his own garden is a dust bowl, but he sees other lush lawns in his city.

How much water do Canadians use?

It's difficult to pin down exactly how much water we use every day but Canada is among the heaviest users.

A study on daily municipal water consumption per capita by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that in 2013, Canada was the fourth highest water user, behind the United States, New Zealand and Norway.

Canadians used an estimated 405 litres a day, a figure which factors in all water users connected to public water, including homes, businesses and industrial users. That's twice more than those in Australia, Germany and Denmark.

The U.S., for comparison, used just more than 500 litres per person, per day.

"It's a little bit of an almost slap in the face," Koopman tells Tremonti. "It's almost as if you've been studying for an exam and no one else has been studying and everyone is being kept behind for detention."

Koopman worries about logistics for his family, but as a botanist he's also concerned about plant extinction in the area.

"I work in conservation, so this is a place where we're used to giving people warnings and they don't listen," says Koopman. "But you would have thought that with your livelihood and life on the line people would have a little bit more urgency. And that hasn't been the case until last week, really."

How to deal with water shortages?

Mike Young is a specialist in water policy reform, and has advised countries including the U.S., New Zealand and France on how to best manage their water resources.

He's surprised Cape Town is unprepared for this crisis, and that it hasn't looked to Australia, California or Barcelona for examples of how to deal with water shortages.

'Day Zero' looms in Cape Town's water crisis

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"They seem to have struggled to have taken the early obvious steps," says Young. "There's a lot of experience in how you plan for this and what you do so it doesn't become a crisis."

Young says that 20 per cent of the world's population is already living with absolute water scarcity. That's expected to rise to about half of the people in the world in the next few decades.

A sign warning residents of water restrictions is seen in Cape Town in October. The mayor says people have largely ignored the restrictions and she is now vowing to get tough. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Young points to water sharing agreements as one solution, where each person and organization is given a water allotment for the year and has to manage it like a bank account. If an organization needs more water than their allotment, they can buy it from those who have some left over. This practice has already been working in Australia, he says.

"That's what's needed globally, a mechanism that forces everybody to think about water ... and to save it and treat it with the same respect as people look at money and manage money."

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.

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