A graphic showing how the water level in a Cape Town reservoir has dropped , 3 January 2014 - 14 January 2018. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

By Amal Ahmed
17 March 2018

(Popular Science) – Day Zero: that’s the ominous label officials in Cape Town have bestowed on the day that water will run out. A three year drought in the region drained reservoirs faster than expected. They were full at the start of 2014, but estimates from the end of January 2018 show that water levels are now at 26 percent of capacity. When the level drops to 13.5 percent, officials plan to shut off pipes and start controlling water distribution to residents. Cape Town’s residents will receive a daily ration of 25 liters of water—the average American, by contrast, uses fifteen times as much per day. A black market is sure to emerge, but the city’s poorest, who have long been bearing the brunt of this crisis, will probably not be able to afford the exorbitant prices.

When Day Zero will arrive is anyone’s guess. It’s been pushed back several times already, as water conservation efforts have proved successful, according to local news reports—it might not even hit until 2019 if usage remains low.

But while conservation efforts may stave off the inevitable, there’s one thing city planners and water management can't predict: when it will rain again. Until the drought is over, Cape Town will remain on the brink of an environmental and public health disaster. But the South African city is just one of many localities across the globe to face extreme water shortages in recent years—and one of many more to come. The World Resources Institute recently crunched data on water consumption and projected climate patterns, and predicts that by 2040, most regions in the world will be facing some level of water stress, and 33 countries could face “extremely high” stress.

Cape Town is one of the most dire cases we’re seeing today. But across the globe, water troubles are already straining the lives of millions of people. [more]

The people of Cape Town are running out of water — and they’re not alone

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