HOW WILL WE COPE WHEN DAY ZERO ARRIVES IN A U.S. CITY?

Posted on June 21, 2018 by Eileen Millett

While those of us here in the northeast have been wringing out soggy clothing, using umbrellas as an essential feature of our wardrobes, praying for sun, and genuinely wondering if the long hot days of summer will ever truly be with us, residents of Cape Town, South Africa are experiencing the opposite dilemma.  Although recently the situation began to improve, Cape Town is suffering through one of the longest and driest spells in its history, and could be the first major city to run out of water.   They could come face to face with Day Zero when no water comes from the taps.

Cape Town, named one of the world’s best places to visit by the New York Times and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, is Africa’s third main economic hub, and until the gold rush development of Johannesburg, was the largest city in South Africa. It is alive with multi-million dollar beach front homes, art museums and two of the world’s top 50 restaurants.  The city could now have another distinction.  Despite reducing its water use to half, announcing three new desalination plants, and residents taking 90-second showers, it will take years to normalize  the extended drought its residents have suffered through.   Cape Town is suffering from a three-year drought the likes of which haven’t been seen in a century, as the city has become warmer and drier.

We take water’s existence for granted.  When we turn on the tap, it better be there, and it better be drinkable.  Water quality and less water quantity have been front and center in deliberations about water management.   Flint, Michigan brought us to the battle zone at the mouth of the Flint River, and demonstrated the ramifications head-on of high levels of lead in drinking water.  Lack of proper treatment, exposure and yes, environmental justice issues were at the fore.  Obviously, we care about what is in our drinking water, but we don’t give much thought to whether or how much water is readily available.  Little has prepared us for the day when the amount of water flowing from our faucets will be limited to a few hours a day, if even we have access to water at all. 

Not so the case in Cape Town, South Africa, a coastal paradise, responsible for 10% of Africa’s GDP, where residents have been living with the ramifications of severely limited supplies of water, and where this thriving metropolis of 4 million is poised to become the first major city in the world to completely run dry.   They have little choice but to prepare and to live with the crisis.  Can we afford to dismiss Cape Town as an outlier or should we be preparing for a Day Zero closer to home?

Population growth and urbanization, combined with drought, a natural climate phenomenon or a feature of climate change, depending on your point of view, has pushed Cape Town to a 2019 Day Zero countdown clock, but has not resulted in its being able to avoid Day Zero entirely — a day when the doomsday scenario occurs and the taps run dry.  Earlier this year, Day Zero had been predicted to fall on May 11, 2018, the day when taps in all homes and businesses would be turned off, and when Cape Town’s 4 million residents would have had to line up for water rations.  Cape Town residents are now forced to subsist on 13 gallons of water a day.  Exceeding the daily water limit results in fines.  Residents and tourists alike are implored to recognize the water crisis and to conserve.  This means taking extreme measures on a daily basis, like taking 90-second showers, drinking a half gallon of water, utilizing only one sinkful to hand wash dishes or laundry, having water for one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush.   The 13-gallon limit is less than the minimum U.N. daily recommendation for domestic needs.

Tragically, Cape Town’s looming problem might have been avoided if only there had been better planning, better crisis management and no drought.  To be fair, Cape Town did undertake a program to fix old and leaky pipes, to install meters and to adjust tariffs.  The city did not, however, look for new water sources.  Cape Town depends on water from six dams that are rainfall dependent, and now stand at just over 25% of capacity.  Depending on these dams as a limited source has been exacerbated by the city’s population growth swelling by upwards of 30% in the last decade, with most of that growth in the city’s poorer areas that actually consume less water.  And therein lies one of the realities of South Africa’s sad apartheid legacy — extraordinary inequality and concentrated wealth and privilege.  Folks in the more affluent area of the city can access privately maintained water tanks and pools for their water needs.  Pools provide a built in bathing option and an emergency water supply.

With only about half of the residents reaching the 13 gallon a day target, most consider a shut-off inevitable.  It is not a question of if, but how the city will make water accessible and prevent anarchy.  In poorer parts of the city, people share communal taps and carry water buckets to their homes.  With the clock ticking, Capetonians are sharing water-saving tips — don’t boil food, bake it or grill it; use paper plates; order pizza and eat it from the box; use water collected from showing to wash clothes, use grey water to flush toilets, and more.

Recent rainfall in Cape Town will help to normalize the situation, but the city has not averted the crisis.  Closer to home the condition of the Rio Grande in New Mexico reflects a broader trend in the west, where greenhouse gas emissions have made wet years less wet and dry years even drier.   So although conservancy districts store water in reservoirs, once that water is drained, if there are no summer rains, farmers will face an uncertain future.  Despite the northeast’s rainy spring and general good fortune with water reserves, there are lessons to be learned from our neighbors to the west, and very far south on a different continent.