What It’s Like To Live Through Cape Town’s Massive Water Crisis
I knew we were in trouble when I found myself Googling dry composting toilets. That was on Feb. 1, just after the mayor’s office here in Cape Town announced new water restrictions. We are now limited to using 13 gallons of water per person per day. That’s enough for a 90-second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, a sinkful to hand-wash dishes or laundry, one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush. I figured I could save an extra couple of gallons by forgoing the daily flush in favor of a dry composting toilet. Hippie friends living off the grid in the country do it. How bad could it be?
According to current projections, Cape Town will run out of water in a matter of months. This coastal paradise of 4 million on the southern tip of South Africa is to become the first modern major city in the world to completely run dry. And even though residents aren’t responsible, the burden of making sure it doesn’t happen rests largely on our ability to cut down on water usage. Dramatically.
Millions of people around the world live without sufficient access to water. But Cape Town is no developing-world urban quagmire. It is a prosperous metropolis, a well-managed global tourist destination responsible for 9.9% of South Africa’s GDP, full of multimillion-dollar beachfront properties, art museums and two of the world’s top 50 restaurants. Cape Town running out of water is like San Diego going dry. Which, if you factor in the looming threat of climate change, may not be that far off. California’s five-year drought, which ended in 2016, had state officials scrambling to enact their own water restrictions. At one point, NASA warned that the state had less than a year’s supply in its reservoirs. As with the California dry spell, climatologists at the University of Cape Town say man-made global warming is a likely factor in the continued drought and that we, like many other cities around the globe, are facing a drier future with increasingly unpredictable rains. What is happening to us in Cape Town might not be an outlier. It could happen to you too.
The Cape Town crisis stems from a combination of poor planning, three years of drought and spectacularly bad crisis management. The city’s outdated water infrastructure has long struggled to keep up with the burgeoning population. As dam levels began to decline amid the first two years of drought, the default response by city leadership was a series of vague exhortations to be “water aware.” The water-saving appeals became more urgent in the past year. The rest of us prayed for rain.
It was only in September that Capetonians were given a limit of just over 23 gallons of water per day per person. By then the reservoirs were at a third of their capacity. But less than half of city residents met that goal—the tragedy of the commons, in action. As a result, with reservoirs down to the last dregs of accessible water, the 13-gallon limit we are asked to meet is less than the minimum U.N. daily recommendation for domestic water needs.
An even grimmer scenario now looms: Day Zero, when the government will turn off the taps for most homes and businesses in the city to conserve the very last supplies. Hospitals and other vital institutions in the city center will still get water, according to officials, but the majority of residents will have to line up at communal water points to collect their daily allotment of 6.6 gallons—about half our current, meager recommended limit—under the gaze of armed guards.