City of Cape Town annual water use, 1978-2018. Graphic: Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton
12 July 2018

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Circle of Blue) – This is what a water panic looks like in a major global city.

People hoard water. They queue for hours, well into the night, to fill jugs at natural springs. Like mad Christmas shoppers, they clear supermarkets of bottled water. They descend on stockers before they can fill the shelves.

Restaurants, malls, and offices shut off bathroom faucets and install hand sanitizer dispensers. Exhortations to conserve water are plastered throughout buildings. Above one toilet stall at the University of Cape Town a paper placard with a hand-turned dial indicates the number of uses since the last flush. “Be A Wee-Wise Water Warrior. Only Flush After 4 (No. 1’s only),” it reads.

Panic. Residents in South Africa’s second largest city repeatedly used that word to describe the weeks after January 18 when Mayor Patricia De Lille proclaimed that the day the city would run out of water, what was called “Day Zero,” was fast approaching. The declaration hit like a blast wave.

City workers knocked holes into sewer lines so that underground water would seep in to compensate for low flows. Wealthier residents frantically drilled boreholes on their property to access groundwater and move a portion of their water use off the city grid. Well drillers reported being booked for months.

On February 1 — the height of southern hemisphere summer, when water demand is greatest — the city clamped down, harder than any city with its living standards. Officials set a target of 50 liters (13 gallons) per person per day for all domestic uses: cooking, bathing, toilet flushing, washing clothes. Watering lawns and scrubbing cars with city water had already been banned for months. “The abuse of water means that we will all suffer,” De Lille had warned.

The most visible symbol of the water crisis was Theewaterskloof Dam, the main drinking source for Cape Town. The big dam and its five sister reservoirs in the Western Cape system not only supply water for drinking water but also for farm irrigation. After three years of drought, the reservoirs dropped so rapidly six months ago that city authorities warned that they would shut off water to homes and businesses unless residents embraced strict water-saving practices.

The goal was to keep the reservoirs from being completely drained, unleashing a catastrophic scenario — a major city starved of water, an economy constricted, millions of residents hauling daily water rations from sanctioned collection points, the potential for disease outbreaks and violence.

In those terrifying months earlier this year turnouts along the R45 highway, an hour east of Cape Town, became vantage points to view the calamity. Theewaterskloof Dam, and its largely empty reservoir, lay below. Steady winds raked the empty plain on a warm April afternoon, lifting up curtains of dust. A herd of oryx grazed warily while songbirds flitted among dead trees, their branches bleached and spiky like fish bones. [more]

Cape Town’s Harrowing Journey to the Brink of Water Catastrophe

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