“Day Zero” is coming to Cape Town–the day when the city will be forced to turn off taps to private homes, and residents will line up in the morning to receive water rations. This is the day that Cape Town runs out of water. For a city of 3.78 million people this will be a disaster, and for many it already is.
Three years ago, the rain in the dry, shrubby landscape around Cape Town ceased to fall. The region receives primarily winter precipitation, with long, dry summers in between. Since then, rainfall has been scarce, and the city’s reservoirs are nearly depleted. Spiking population growth has also contributed to the disastrous drought. As Cape Town grows in size, so too does its water usage. Population growth in Cape Town is nearly double what it was 30 years ago, as more and more people move from rural to urban areas, straining city resources like water. Immigration has played a role in this growth. As more and more people move to Cape Town, and drought drains the reservoirs dry, residents struggle to cope in a water-less landscape.
However, residents have responded to the crisis with enough gusto to stave off Day Zero for now. Citizens of Cape Town have been asked by the city to avoid flushing potable water or showering more than twice a week, and showers must remain under three minutes. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” signs reportedly hang in public restrooms everywhere, imploring locals and tourists to only flush toilets when absolutely necessary. Residents are limited to a mere 13 gallons of water a day, facing large fines if they use more. For comparison, the average U.S. citizen uses 100 gallons of water a day. Thanks to the overwhelming response of its citizens, Cape Town’s water usage has been reduced enough to push Day Zero to 2019; but still, residents can only pray for rain. Without water to replenish the reservoirs, Cape Town is just delaying doomsday.
Cape Town has experienced the perfect storm of water scarcity, but this storm is coming to other parts of the world as well. Water scarcity is a major concern for experts as we look at the future effects of climate change. Water covers 70% of Earth’s surface, but only about 3% is fresh and drinkable. Over one billion of the world’s eight billion people lack access to fresh water, and another 2.7 billion experience water scarcity for at least one month out of the year. One in four of the world’s largest cities are in a situation of “water stress,” or the inability for fresh, drinkable water supply to meet human and ecological demand, according to a 2014 survey. Given UN-endorsed projections, human demand for fresh water will exceed the Earth’s capacity by 40% before 2030.
To make matters worse, climate change has disrupted where, when, and how much rain falls. Like Cape Town, cities of the world depend on consistent rainfall to fill their reservoirs and provide for their people. Regular, seasonally predictable rainfall is also vital to agriculture, and such lapses could prove disastrous to the world’s food stores. Unfortunately, as climate change continues to disrupt the world’s weather, we are more and more likely to see an increase in these kinds of droughts.
This may spell doom for many of the world’s largest cities. Beijing, a massive urban center of over 21 million people, may be one of the next to put a “Day Zero” on the calendar. A study by Columbia University estimates that the city’s water reserves dropped 13% between 2000 and 2009. Despite having only 7% of the world’s fresh water, China is home to 20% of the world’s population, and that number is only going up.
Mexico City is home to nearly nine million people One in five residents get only a few hours of running water from their taps a week. 40% of the city’s water is imported from distant sources, and the same percentage of their supply is lost to problems in the pipes, such as leakage. London, on the other hand, has no shortage of nearby water, but the city’s population has grown so dramatically large that the Greater London Authority believes they are pushing close to capacity and are likely to have supply problems by 2025, leading to major shortages by 2040.
Water is the driving force behind all life on Earth, but human supplies are beginning to run dry. The social, political, and economic implications of water shortages have already been felt in cities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Cape Town, though their full magnitude is yet to be realized. “Day Zero” is coming to Cape Town, and the rest of the world must prepare for the day their taps, too, run dry.