Cape Town, a coastal South African city of about 4 million people, is about to run out of fresh water.
After three years of persistent drought, the government is warning that “Day Zero” – when it will be forced to turn off most faucets – will be May 11. That’s when reservoirs and water sources are forecast to hit 13.5% capacity, at which point the city is expected to move most residents to a strict water-rationing system.
As Cape Town’s reservoirs of fresh water get dangerously close to dry, locals are beginning to store water in jugs and fill up at spring-fed taps set up by local breweries. Those who can afford it are boring mini backyard wells to collect private water stashes, and some hotels are investing in pricey desalination plants to make ocean water drinkable.
Take a look at how people are dealing with the looming crisis:
The drought is the region’s worst in over a century.
The Theewaterskloof Dam, the city’s largest, is just 12.2% full.
NASA greyed out these aerial satellite images that stretch back four years to show just how bad things have gotten at the dam:
The South African weather service says climate change is making its historical models useless.
Long-term forecasters say it’s impossible to predict how long the crisis will last.
Cape Town’s population has also been growing rapidly, compounding the effects of the three-year drought.
Data from the UN shows that the percentage of South Africans living in cities has been climbing since the 1950s.
The city is trying to push people to use less water at home.
After weeks of failed attempts, there’s some evidence that people are finally starting to heed the city’s calls.
The city says 55% of its residents are now using less than 87 liters of water a day at home. But that won’t be enough to avoid a catastrophe.
“Only if each of us reduces our daily use down to 50 liters or less, and the City implements the necessary projects, will we avoid Day Zero,” the city’s website says.
Local beer bottlers are opening up their natural spring taps so people can collect free water, off the city’s grid.
And people are lining up at all hours of the night to stock up on supplies.
- Reuters/Mike Hutchings
Most other plans to create new desalination plants, water-recycling facilities, and groundwater sources are running behind schedule.
- Reuters/Mike Hutchings
Only one “alternative water source” project in the works is running on schedule: a waterfront hotel’s plan to build a private plant to treat ocean water.
Source: City of Cape Town
The government is worried that if people can’t conserve enough water to avoid the shutoff, anarchy will erupt.
Though apartheid ended more than two decades ago, inequality in South Africa is still soaring. In 2015, black South Africans made only one-fifth what their white counterparts made, The New York Times reported last year, citing a government survey.
If “Day Zero” arrives, though, not all the taps will be turned off.
People who live in settlements and shantytowns where there’s no running water in homes will still have access to the city’s supply from spigots like the one above.
But everyone else will be limited to 25 liters a day.
They’ll have to collect their water ration from one of the 200 water distribution points the city plans to set up.
That means thousands of people are likely to line up at each tap every day to collect their water.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wrote in the South African newspaper the Daily Maverick that “if every family sends one person to fetch their water allocation, about 5,000 people will congregate” at each tap per day.
“As things stand, the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/11,” Zille wrote.
“I personally doubt whether it is possible for a city the size of Cape Town to distribute sufficient water to its residents, using its own resources, once the underground water-pipe network has been shut down,” she said.
Meanwhile, business has been nice for borehole companies, as those who can afford to build private water-storage wells opt to do that.
The city has also been asking residents and tourists to collect and reuse their bathing water to flush toilets, as well as limit showers to two minutes.
It’s also telling people to shower less often and use hand sanitizer instead of washing their hands some of the time.
- City of Cape Town
But Cape Town isn’t the only city in water trouble — the World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world could be dealing with water shortages.
As droughts fueled by climate change become more frequent and developing cities become more packed with people, some freshwater sources could be threatened.