Cape Town faces Day Zero: what happens when the city turns off the taps?

In 10 weeks engineers will turn off water for a million homes as this South African city reacts to one-in-3 84 -year drought. The rich are delving boreholes, more are panic-buying bottled water, and the army is on standby

The head of Cape Town’s disaster runnings centre is drawing up a program he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the frontline of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps.

” We’ve identified four dangers: sea deficits, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to tournament for scarce resources ,” says Greg Pillay.” We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for interruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 times in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis .”

The plan- being drawn up with the emergency services, the military forces, epidemiologists and other health experts- is geared towards Day Zero, the apocalyptically named phase when water in the six-dam reservoir system falls to 13.5% of capacity.

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Water crisis in Cape Town as ‘day zero’ approaches- video report

At this crucial degree- currently forecast for 16 April- piped render shall be considered to have failed and the city will dispatch squads of technologists to close the valves to about thousands and thousands of homes- 75% of the city.

” It’s going to be frightening for many people when they turn on the tap and nothing comes out ,” says Christine Colvin, freshwater director for WWF and a member of the mayor’s advisory board.

In place of piped water, the city will establish 200 water collecting points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres per person per period within 200 metres of every citizen’s home.

This will be a major burden on municipal coffers. The estimated cost of install and running the new system for three months is 200m rand( PS12m ). Instead of selling sea, it will be given away for free, which will intend R1. 4bn in lost revenue.

Cape Town reservoir satellite

” The total city budget is R40bn, so this won’t destroy us, but it will cause severe pain ,” says the deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, who adds that “hes not” had a bath at home for a year.” A bigger fear is to ensure the economy doesn’t collapse. We need to keep business and jobs running … Clearly, there could be a severe impact. It depends on how long it continues .”

Neilson emphasized that Day Zero can be avoided. A lower of pipe pressure and a information campaign to conserve water have cut the city’s daily water intake from 1,200 million litres to 540 million litres. If this can be pushed down another 25%, the taps should stay open to the start of the rainy season in May.

But this is no warranty. Three consecutive years of drought have made a mock of normal seasonal patterns.

” We’re in a critical transition period where the past is not a accurate guidebook to the future ,” says Colvin.

She represents her level with two maps. One- based on historical data- shows the water risk of Cape Town is green, entailing it is among the lowest in South africans. The other- based on future climate projections- is almost the complete opposite, with the city located in a centre of an alarming red heat zone.

” What we didn’t know was when that future would arrive ,” says Colvin.” Business and investors have heard the long-term projections but they haven’t heard the starting firearm go off. If this drought can pull the trigger then that could be a good thing. If this is seen as a pressure test for the new normal, it will help us to adapt .”

The government has struggled to keep pace. Plans to build the city more resilient to climate change by diversifying the water supply with boreholes and desalination flowers were not due to kick down until after 2020. But the climate has moved faster, bringing a drought so severe it would usually be expected only once every 384 years.

Dam today, gone tomorrow

Theewaterskloof Dam, the main water source for the city of Cape Town, is at a fraction of its water capability. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/ AFP/ Getty Images

What was the most difficult reservoir in the system- Theewaterskloof Dam– has mainly evaporated or been sucked dry.

One side of the lake is now a desert. Devoid of life, this is a landscape of sand dunes, cracked land and dead trees. It takes more than 30 minutes walk under a burning sunshine to reach the last pool of water, which is barely wide enough to skimming a stone across. In what looks just like a dark failing of evolution, it is ringed by the carcasses of marooned fish.

On the other side, by the dam wall, the water is nearly 10 metres deep, but the shoreline is receding at the rate of the 1.2 m a week, leaving the bed exposed to the sunlight. The afternoon winds once attracted sail barges; now they whip up white dust storm that envelop much of the valley.

” The change is visible by the week ,” said Paul Furstenburg, eatery director at Theewater athletics fraternity.” When I arrived here four years earlier, it was like a ocean ,” he says, pointing to photograph on the walls of high waves crashing up to the car park during a blizzard and dozens of crafts sailing in regattas. Now, the shoreline is more than 100 m back and one of the three small vessels left in the sea is stranded on a sandbank. The fraternity- which would normally be thronged with sailors, water-skiers, swimmers, campers and fishermen- is almost empty. The revenue has dried up too, leaving the 20 staff worried about their futures.” This has run from a holiday resort to nothing ,” says Errol Nichols, the safety officer.” It has become a desolate place .”

A dead fish on the dry bed of Theewaterskloof dam. Photograph: Nic Bothma/ EPA

In Cape Town itself, specific populations is jittery. “We’re scared,” says Amirah Armien as she queues to fill a couple of bottles at the spring beside Newlands Brewery.” Water is life. What are we going to do without sea ?”

After a run on bottled water last month, supermarkets introduced restrictions for each client. Hardware shops have sold out of water tanks and pool covers. Borehole drillers are now so overwhelmed with requests that there is a year-long wait. Even dehumidifiers- which are being marketed as” sea from air” machines- are out of stock.

” People are freaking out ,” said David Gwynne-Evans, a botanist.” You go to the stores and recognize people buying 20 bottles of water. It’s a ridiculous increase of disposable plastic .”

He belief Cape Town’s vineyards bear a large share of blame why i am water-intensive yet they have continued to expand during the drought.” Wine is a luxury. We shouldn’t be using sea for that, yet even now new vineyards are opening .”

‘We’re scared … sea is life’

Residents queue to collect drinking water from a mountain spring collecting phase last month. Photo: Nic Bothma/ EPA

The crisis has exacerbated racism and divide. One homophobic rector blames the drought on gays and lesbians. There has furthermore been sharp criticism of the governmental forces, and conflicts between “the member states national” and provincial authorities over the handling of the crisis.

Yet- among the broader populace- efforts to avert Day Zero have been successfully ramped up.

Many hotels have removed the plug from chambers so guests must have a shower rather than a bath. Blue droplet-shaped signs above agency toilet drops remind users” Conserve H2O. Use sparingly .” There are more signs in the cubicles, which are is split into” No 1″ and” No 2″ lavatories to ensure maximum efficiency. Some shopping mall have turned off the taps and installed hand-sanitiser dispensers.

At an individual level, the study curve has been steep. Civic-minded Capetonians have become accustomed to showering- or merely ladling hot water- in a baby bath that compiles the run-off so that it can be used in first the washing machine and then the toilet.

A major topic of conversation for Capetonians is how many litres they use and how long they can go without rinsing their hair or flushing.

” I’ve never talked about toilets so much ,” says Fiona Kinsey, a young office worker.” Last year, we were discussing whether it was OK to wee in a public toilet and not flush. Now “weve been” way beyond that .”

Shame is used to maintain discipline. An online sea intake map lets neighbours to check on each other’s usage. Some athletics fraternities have installed buzzers on their showers that embarrass people who lingered under the water for more than two minutes.

There is a positive aspect to this sudden shock. Many people are happy to see a greater awareness of conservation and intake inequality. Social activists say the rich are experiencing what life has always been like in poor townships, where many occupants are used to lining up at standpipes.

For occupants of informal Cape Town villages such as Masiphumelele, accumulating drinking and washing sea from a communal tap has been a daily routine for many years. Photo: Nic Bothma/ EPA

” Using rinsing water to flush the lavatory is what people in townships do all the time ,” says Makoma Lekalakala, administrator of Earthlife Africa.” So is washing with buckets and scurries. I had my first shower when I was in my 20 s .”

Dee Watson, a educator, describes the situation as a” euphoric stage” in which most people are appearing out for others in a positive way.

” What’s amazing is to mixture and talk in the queue with every stratum of culture. We all need water so it brings people together ,” says Watson.” For now at least, most people are giggling and joking. But it’s scary that some people are being greedy and panic-buying .”

There have been acts of benevolence. At the start of the drought, Newlands spring- where water flows freely from underground- was a site of clay, crowds and chaos as people jostled to get at the taps and informal labourers rivalled to carry water for tips.

” People were getting hurt ,” remembers Riyaz Rawoot, a local resident who says he spent R25, 000 from his own pocket to organise the spring with the construction of multiple access levels and provision of uniforms for the sea carriers.

” I’m not making such a fund. I merely want to be of service. Until now it has been fun, but it is becoming more stressful as more people come ,” he says.” I’m worried about Day Zero. People are frightened and they don’t trust the government, so they are likely panic and to continue efforts to get sea any behavior they can .”

A social leveller? Cape Town residents queue to collect drinking water from a mountain springtime. Photo: Nic Bothma/ EPA

Neighbours are already unhappy that their previously quiet street is now a hive of activity, with people carrying sea receptacles in squeaky browse streetcars back and forth from the springtime to cars parked along the main road. “It’s a nightmare,” says one of inhabitants of the Cresswell House senior citizen’ community.” They come all through the nighttime. It’s so noisy we can’t sleep .”

It is also far from clear that drought is a social leveller. Wealthy homeowners have drilled boreholes and are used in water tanks so they have an independent supply. Joggers who go out at 5am say they can hear the “phut phut” of sprinklers being used to water lawns before most people are awake. Some inhabitants have called environmental groups to complain their neighbours are filling swimming pools.

At the other terminate of the income spectrum, there are frets. The government has promised that standpipes will continue to flow in informal settlements after Day Zero, but there is scepticism in the Kanini neighbourhood of the Langa township. The one tube that serves 20 households tailed off here last Thursday without reason. Some locals feel they are being penalise because of a public outcry about the waste at a street car-washing centre at the neighbouring settlement of Joe Slovo.

” I’m worried … everyone is worried. It will be a crisis for us ,” says Nowest Nmoni, who makes a living by brewing Umqombothi beer in petroleum drums.” If “were losing” water, we lose our income .”

Q& A

Living in Cape Town? Share your experiences

If “youre living in” Cape Town we’d like to find out how the water shortage is affecting your daily life. Tell us what you think about the measures put in place and what steps you’re taking to save water using our encrypted shape here.

Your narratives will help our correspondents build a complete picture of the situation and we’ll use some of them in our reporting.

Maintaining social programmes will also be a challenge. City officials say hospitals and prisons will operate as normal because they have access to aquifers, but questions remain about 819 schools, half of which do not have boreholes. There would be sanitation dangers if their lavatories were unable to flush, but the authorities concerned insist they will remain open.

” The objective is no school closes. We don’t want kids on the street compounding issues ,” says deputy mayor Neilson.

When the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo faced drought tragedy in 2015 the army drew up secret plans to take control of reservoirs and water supplies fearing violent unrest, but bureaucrats in Cape Town play down such security panics. Though thousands of South African Defence Force and police personnel will be deployed after Day Zero to guard water distribution centres, reservoirs and other strategic areas, they say, the number of officers at each website is decided by risk assessments of each location’s past history of complain or gang activity.

” This isn’t going to be martial law. It will be low profile ,” says JP Smith, an alderman responsible for safety and security.” There might be some trouble about people cutting queues, but I don’t foresee a big increased number of felony. The bigger trouble is likely to be congestion .”

For him, it is a moot point. He belief Day Zero will be avoided. The premier of Western Cape, Helen Zille, however, believes there is a 60% chance that it will occur.

While the debate rages about what will happen, who is to blame and whether the city will be drawn together or pulled apart, Pillay and his colleagues at the disaster risk management office are obliged to prepare for the worst- something other cities may soon be obliged to do.

” We don’t want to create panic. We can avoid Day Zero ,” he says.” We had hoped that rainfall would replenish the dams, but it hasn’t happened. What this signalled to me what that climate change is reality. If you doubted it before, you can’t now .”

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