Cape Town Braces for Day Zero

Cape Town water warning

Cape Town, South Africa, is marching toward Day Zero. Despite an exemplary record in local water conservation and water-table management, the city is scheduled to run out of water sometime this summer. (The estimate at the time of the publication of this post is early July 2018.) The South African government has conducted a massive outreach effort to encourage residents to limit their water usage and to prepare for a major change. Olga Khazan, a health writer for The Atlantic, has found that the drought will have a markedly different impact on some people than on others:

I had spent the past week in South Africa on a reporting trip and had decided to pass through Cape Town on my way back, in part out of curiosity about the water shortage. The news coverage sounded scary: Because of a historic drought, the city was nearly out of water. In June, taps are set to run dry—an event referred to, menacingly, as “Day Zero.” If it comes, people will be forced to queue for a daily ration of water from guarded collection points around the city.

It seemed too nightmarish to be plausible. I spent a few months in Cape Town during the southern hemisphere’s wintertime in 2010. I remembered the place as being both relatively well managed—the country hosted the World Cup while I was there—and, well, pretty rainy.

As I collected my bags, I wondered whether the laid-back, visually striking city I remembered had turned into some sort of apocalyptic hellscape out of Mad Max.

Not quite, I discovered. Or at least, not for tourists.

From a water conservationist’s perspective, I recommend this interview at The Bulletin with Peter Gleick. A snippet that sheds a little perspective on “peak water”:

Peter Gleick: I wrote a paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  a few years ago with a colleague that defines peak water. The simplest way to think about it is that even though water is a renewable resource, there are limits to how much we can take and use. When you take the entire flow of a river—as we do on the Colorado River, or the Yangtze River, or the Yellow River in China—then you can’t have anymore. We might want more water out of the Colorado River, but we can’t have it; it’s just not there. That’s a peak constraint. In addition, we’re overdrafting many non-renewable water resources as well, such as groundwater. When we pump groundwater faster than nature recharges it, it’s like peak oil. You’re using up a stock.

As much as a third of all the groundwater that’s pumped worldwide now comes from non-renewable groundwater resources. That’s a peak limit as well. More and more regions of the world—including places like Cape Town—are reaching what I call peak water.

Interviewer: What would be a good example here in the States of drawing too much water from a non-renewable resource? The Ogallala Aquifer?

Peter Gleick: The Ogallala Aquifer, yeah.

For those who haven’t heard of the Ogallala Aquifer, it provides drinking and irrigation water for eight states in America’s Great Plains.