In the first months of 2018, the eyes of the entire world were trained on Cape Town. South Africa’s second largest city was frighteningly close to reaching Day Zero: the day on which it would have become the first major city in the world to exhaust its entire supply of drinking water.
The unprecedented water shortage was the result of a record drought lasting several years and the rapid growth of the city’s population. As the Cape Town water network had not been designed to withstand such a long absence of rain, by December 2017, the city’s water reserves had dropped down to a third of full capacity, despite the massive reservoirs that supply water to the city.
In order to avert the emergency, the South African government issued a warning. This stated that unless people are persuaded to save water on a large scale, on 22 April 2018 the drinking water network supplying households and public taps would be shut down, and people will only receive 25 litres of water per person per day at special distribution centres.
In order to avert Day Zero, in the first instance they limited daily water consumption to 87 litres per person, then, as that did not prove to be sufficiently effective, daily water consumption was restricted to 50 litres. They used all available means and many suggestions to persuade residents as well as tourists to comply with the water consumption limits to ensure that the city’s water reserves last as long as possible. In addition, a number of emergency scenarios were also developed to handle the water crisis, from recycling wastewater to desalination of water from the ocean and even the towing of icebergs to Cape Town.
Thanks to the frugal use of water, the city finally succeeded in delaying the dreaded Day Zero, but the people of Cape Town are far from home free; the catastrophe has only been averted temporarily. The western tip of South Africa is expected to suffer similar periods of drought with increasing frequency in the following decades.
Cape Town’s historic water crisis was a wake-up call for the entire world. Something that had previously been unimaginable happened. If the targets set in the Paris Agreement are not reached, there is reason to fear that many other major cities could suffer a similar fate within a few decades. The example of Cape Town is a timely warning that chronic water shortages are already just around the corner.
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