Panic Sets In: First Major City to Completely Run Out of Water

After 3 years of intense drought, Cape Town is likely to run out of water completely by mid-April 2018. Officials estimate that water pipes supplying the homes of about 4 million people will be turned off around April 12th, depending on when dam levels reach 13.5%. Only essential institutions, such as hospitals and schools, will be allowed to use running water, and citizens will be forced to line up for water rations at designated supply points.

When the shut-off day arrives, dubbed “Day Zero” by the city’s officials, it will mark the first time in history that a major city’s water supply runs dry. A South African newspaper suggests that this crisis could cause havoc comparable to what New York City faced after the September 11th attacks.

A City in Crisis

Last year, in an effort to make water reserves last as long as possible, Cape Town asked citizens to use only 87 liters of water per person per day – that’s only enough for a six-minute shower. On February 1st 2018, that number dropped to 50 liters. The city has provided its citizens with a chart outlining how to make the most out of those 50 liters, suggesting they take sponge baths, switch to waterless sanitizer for hand-washing, and flush toilets only once per day by following the following criteria: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

The price of water was also raised as of February 1st. City officials hope this will curb usage even further. An extensive FAQ document provided by the local government begins with this statement: “The only way we can avoid Day Zero is if all Capetonians join in the savings drive and immediately reduce their consumption to below 50 liters per person per day.”

A Changing Landscape

Satellite images show shrinking dams and disappearing vegetation over a short period of time. Without sufficient rainfall, the six dams that provide most of the city’s water supply look so empty it’s scary— and during the past few months, the amount of water held in the largest reservoir has dropped a full percentage point in only one week.

Cape Town is in an arid region of Africa that suffers from periods of low rainfall, and the city government has been working in recent years to find ways to conserve water. In fact, it was recognized for its water management techniques in 2015 by C40, an organization dedicated to helping cities tackle climate change. At first, all the pipe repairs, meter installations, and other tactics helped to conserve the metropolis’s supply for a while. In fact, even though the population kept rising, water use in general remained about the same in the early 2000’s.

A Drier Future

What went wrong, then? Simply put, Cape Town didn’t do enough to prepare for extreme drought. In their water reform efforts of the early 2000s, they focused on almost everything but obtaining and using water sources other than dams.

In general, the huge metropolitan area has grown drier over the last century and weather has gotten hotter in recent years. Climate models show that South Africa’s future looks grim— dry seasons will be drier, and wet seasons will be less wet in the coming years. Now the city must scramble to invest in desalination plants, groundwater and other sources.

Global Warming?

This bustling African metropolis isn’t the only city in recent years to deal with water shortages. In Brazil, March 2017 droughts forced hundreds of cities to declare a state of crisis and enforce water rationing.

A recent study shows that global climate change may spur increasing numbers of heat waves in the coming years. Right now, about a third of the world’s population is exposed to temperatures harsh enough to cause death, at least 20 days during the year. If greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced, this percentage could climb to 48% by 2100—if not, that number could be as high as 74%.

Perhaps we can’t erase the consequences of global warming altogether, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Here are a few ways you can take action.

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