We went to the major South African city that’s approaching ‘Day Zero’ of an unprecedented water crisis — here’s what it’s like to be a tourist there

A pool in Cape Town, South Africa, had been drained and left to collect rainwater.

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A pool in Cape Town, South Africa, had been drained and left to collect rainwater.
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Business Insider

Cape Town, South Africa, home to more than 4 million people, is close to running out of water after three years of a persistent drought.

Day Zero, the day when the city will be forced to turn off most of its taps, was first set for April but has been pushed to July.

By then, if the city doesn’t get enough rain, thousands of residents will be forced to collect water rations from central collection points.

If Cape Town runs out of water, it will be the first major city in the world to do so. But the World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world could be dealing with water shortages.

We recently went to Cape Town to open Business Insider’s South Africa edition and explored the city as tourists. We found a divide between the tourism industry and the rest of the country.


The coastal city of Cape Town is a popular tourist destination known for its hiking, beaches, and wineries.

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Google Maps

NASA grayed out these satellite images that stretch back four years to show just how bad things have gotten there after three years of drought.

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NASA


Before we traveled to Cape Town, news reports and photos showed people lining up with jugs to collect drinking water at taps open to the public.

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People wait in line to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb of Cape Town on January 25.
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Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Business Insider recently launched an international edition in South Africa based in Cape Town. When we traveled there from New York, we were curious about the effects of the water crisis.

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Business Insider’s Ashley Lutz, Emily Cohn, and Roddy Salazar.
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Business Insider

Check out Business Insider South Africa »


The view coming into Cape Town is of dry brown grass and trees. Many people on the plane said they took “extra long” showers before coming to Cape Town, unsure of when they’d be able to bathe again.

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Cape Town as seen from a plane.
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Ashley Lutz/Business Insider

It didn’t take long to see reminders of the water shortage.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

Many public places like airports, shopping centers, and restaurants have turned off water taps in favor of hand sanitizer.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

At a restaurant in Cape Town, a sign urged people to use hand sanitizer but instructed restaurant workers to continue to use soap and water.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

One hotel’s bathroom included hand sanitizer but still kept the taps running.

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Ashley Lutz/Business Insider

People are also being urged to eat from paper or disposable containers and wash dishes at home instead of at work.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

But the water shortage has also led to a hand-sanitizer shortage in some places, like in our office.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

Signs like this were in virtually every public bathroom in Cape Town.

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A sticker above a sink in Cape Town reminding people to conserve water.
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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

Residents are also being urged to take showers in under two minutes. We were sure to turn our showers off in between rinsing and lathering.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

“If it’s yellow, let it mellow” was a common refrain.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

The pool at our Airbnb apartment was closed when we arrived.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

But much to our surprise, the pool reopened a week into our stay in the city.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider

A hotel near the city’s waterfront had its pool filled to the brim. Some residents are paying to truck water in from outside the city to fill their pools.

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Ashley Lutz/Business Insider.

This hotel, however, had drained its pool and left it to collect rainwater.

A pool in Cape Town, South Africa, had been drained and left to collect rainwater.

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Business Insider

Based on our experience, the water shortage doesn’t seem to be affecting tourists too much. Despite widespread awareness, taps are still running, some pools are filled, and showers aren’t restricted.

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Emily Cohn/Business Insider