Cape Town Water Supply Day Zero: What Happens When A City Runs Dry

South Africa’s bustling city, Cape Town, is in severe trouble with tensions boiling, riots taking place, law enforcement posted in public places and fights breaking out among residents. It is about to make history as the first modern city in the world to run out of water. This is the sort of situation that people could only imagine would exist in a Hollywood movie, and it is going to get a lot worse very soon.

In fact, in just over two months from the date of this post, Cape Town will shut off its water supply to homes and businesses as water reserves will have dropped below the level needed to provide water to the 3.7 million residents safely. When the taps go off on April 16, residents will be forced to line up at heavily guarded water collection points to collect their slim rations of water. In fact, law enforcement, police and time restrictions have already been placed at city springs after fights broke out last week.

Might I remind you, the human body cannot go for longer than three days without water. So you could look at water as an absolute necessity, and even though the water access in April will still be enough to sustain life, no person should have to ration the things that keep them alive.

Sadly, this is something we still see this day and age, the limitation of the bare necessities is a constant issue in some parts of the world. I don’t have to remind you that right now there are people in the world sick from starvation, lack of water and clean oxygen.

How has the Cape Town water supply run this low?

Droughts are no freak occurrence in South Africa. They are regular, severe and cause widespread damage to the country’s agricultural system.

According to weather scientists from Cape Town University, the two leading causes of the current drought we are seeing affect the Cape Town water supply right now are El Nino and climate change.

Yes, this sounds like an Inconvenient Truth, but from the rise in oceanic temperatures affecting weather patterns around the globe resulting in a reduction in South African rainfall (El Nino effect) and the country’s global climate change-affected weather patterns causing high temperatures, it creates the perfect breeding conditions for a severe and disastrous drought.

Image: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The rainfall is the interesting part of this drought, and is one of the leading causes as to why this drought is so severe. The South African Weather Service reported that from January to December in 2015 rainfall in the area was the lowest ever since the weather service has started recording rainfall results in 1904.

That means South Africa, for that year, had the lowest rainfall in more than 100 years.

What does this mean for people living in Cape Town?

Capetown residents line up at the Newlands Brewery spring. Samantha Reinders / NBC News

Just under four million people live in Cape Town, and February’s water restrictions are already brutal. Households are already using water saving strategies such as:

  • Reusing shower and clothes washing water for toilets
  • Ceasing unnecessary hygienic activities to ration water supplies
  • Introducing chemical toilets into family households
  • Employees taking their own water to work
  • Importing water from other areas
  • Limiting what gets flushed

These are only some of the ways residents are limiting their water use. And they haven’t even hit Day Zero yet. Already around Cape Town are various signs such as the one on the right reminding residents that what used to be a normal habit, such as flushing the toilet after every use, should now be a second thought process.

What is Cape Town’s Day Zero?

Cape Town’s water supply is provided by six interlinked dam systems known as the Western Cape Water Supply System, or WCWSS. A year ago, the dam’s level was at a dangerous 40 per cent capacity. On Monday, January 22nd, 2018, the level was 25.3 per cent.

When Cape Town water supply levels reach an emergency 13.5 per cent, authorities will turn of the taps to all households and businesses forcing the residents to line up at 200 collection points around the city each day to collect their essential water rations in buckets, jugs and whatever other water carrying utilities they can bring.

Cape Town’s City Council has opened a Disaster Operations Centre (DOC) as the situation is now at a disaster level. To avoid reaching the emergency shut off level of 13.5 per cent, DOC has stated the city must work together to reduce water consumption by 450 Megalitres per day. That means each person needs to cut their water use to 50 litres per person per day. Residents have already made cuts to their water use, and many are puzzled as to where the extra cuts will come from.

What will happen when the taps are shut off?

Violence will occur, that’s without a doubt. In fact, it has already started. Tension has already risen to boiling point in the city as residents have already been fighting over a popular spring in Cape Town for water supplies.

Residents and The Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition protest over #DayZero. (Photo: Leila Dee Dougan)

That spring will now be managed by law enforcement 24 hours a day, traffic police will control entry to the spring and entry times will be limited to 7 am to 10 pm.

As a method to combat congestion and slow queues for water, each person is only allowed to fill containers of up to 25 litres at a time. This is in response to some residents collecting hundreds of litres at a time in a bid to store water for when the far more severe restrictions will be imposed.

If we have already seen fighting over water supplies and guards being posted at sites to control behavior, just imagine what happens when the taps no longer work. This is also coupled with the fact that there are regular reports that many residents are not heeding to water use restrictions, meaning DayZero’s April date will fast approach, and there’s no stopping it.

To combat violence and aggression at water supply points, Cape Town’s City Council will use members from the South African National Defence Force and South African Police Service.

Having already seen protests staged against the #DayZero drive by the government and the authorities approach to the management of the Cape Town water supply, there will be expected protests once the city shuts of all taps to homes and businesses. If not managed appropriately, this could see Cape Town’s streets filled with mass demonstrations and eventually, martial law.

What does this mean for preparedness and water disasters?

The Cape Town water disaster should be a reminder to preparedness individuals and agencies elsewhere in the world: don’t take water supplies for granted. This is a modern city of almost four million people, with authorities rationing water supplies, and there’s no such thing as “bugging out” or “bugging in” here. Either you line up to get your water supply or you die of thirst, that’s the reality.

For businesses, community stakeholders, and of course government entities, prevention and preparedness is key to avoiding water disasters like what Cape Town is currently experiencing. As a regular drought-stricken area, I am surprised the South African government has not invested more into building desalination plants. 

Desalination plants use a process to extract minerals from salt water. This makes the water suitable for human consumption and agriculture. There are regions that rely on the drinking water provided by desalination plants such as Tampa Bay’s desal plant and various Australian cities such as Perth also use massive amounts of desalination water to supplement their dams. Desalination is a drought-proof water supplier, so it would make sense that an area prone to droughts should use more of this resource.

Cape Town has made a small move in this direction recently, with four desalination plants opening soon in a bid to stem the lack of drinking water. However, these should have been completed before the drought and are being rushed as a response to the now disaster-level scarce water supply.

As far as disasters are concerned, we have the fortune of preparation. Taking up your own preparedness before a disaster strikes is important as it is the one resource you can fall back on in times where resources are in limited supply.

Preppers have been stockpiling an emergency supply of water for decades now. For many American preppers, water stockpiling is normal practice, and so it should be. Whether you are in a drought, flood, earthquake or any other natural or manmade disaster, there is a risk implied by water systems being disrupted.

For most, the home is one of the safest places to stay, and unless a safer option opens up, the only way to survive is through the emergency supply you have put away for yourself.

To stay up to date with the disaster in Cape Town, head on over to City of Cape Town’s twitter page where authorities will maintain their main line of communication with the public.

1 Comment

  1. Hondo


    YIKES! Thanks be to Christ that we have our own well out in the country. thanks

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