This City Has 4 Million People And Might Become The First In The World To Run Out Of Water

People in Cape Town, South Africa, have two and a half months to conserve as much water as they can before it all runs out on "Day Zero."

Cape Town, one of the largest cities in Africa, is running out of water.

Bram Janssen / AP Photo

Unless residents can limit their consumption, or the city gets a massive amount of rainfall within the next two months, the city of just over 4 million will become the first in the world to be completely drained of water.

On Feb. 1, the South African city’s government ordered residents not to use more than 13 gallons of water a day, a 9-gallon drop from its previous mandate. (For scale, people in the US use between 80 and 100 gallons of water a day.) The restrictions are part of its larger, desperate attempt to avoid “Day Zero,” the ominous name given to the date that Cape Town is expected to be effectively waterless.

Here’s everything you need to know about Day Zero, and how people in the city are trying to avoid it.

The situation in Cape Town is the result of a three-year-long drought that has dried up the city’s dams, an event scientists say is linked to climate change.

AP Photo

University of Cape Town climate scientist Peter Johnston told BuzzFeed News that South Africa, Australia, and California are situated in climate regions that require them to conserve water collected in the winter to last them through the drier summer months.

“Drought is not abnormal,” he told BuzzFeed News over Skype, “but it is abnormal to have a drought three winters in a row, and that’s what’s happened in Cape Town.”

Unlike the more rural regions of the country where people are more accustomed to droughts and know how to live through them, “we in the city expect to have water all the time,” he said.

Xanthea Limberg, who heads Cape Town’s Department of Informal Settlement, Water, and Waste Services, told BuzzFeed News that, while the city does not employ its own climate researchers, it “accepts the scientific consensus that weather patterns are changing faster than ever before. This has informed the city’s work over many years to increase its resilience to the effects of difficult-to-predict weather events such as droughts or floods.”

Johnston pointed out that while he doesn’t believe climate change directly caused Cape Town’s three-year drought, it’s created conditions in which long-lasting droughts are more likely to occur.

“It means that during a cycle of wetter and drier years, you get less rainfall on average,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing if you can cope with that deficit.”

Day Zero is when Cape Town is supposed to run out of water, but the date keeps changing.

Halden Krog / AP

Day Zero doesn’t mean that there’s no water at all. Instead it means that all the usable water has been removed from any one of Cape Town’s six major dams. After accounting for the debris that sinks to the bottom of the reserves, researchers have said that Day Zero will occur when water levels dip below 13.5%.

At first, Day Zero was first expected to arrive on May 20. But then conditions worsened a bit, prompting Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille to move the date up nearly a month to April 21. Then it was moved to be as early as April 12. The most recent change happened Jan. 30, when Day Zero was again rescheduled for April 16.

Johnston said that setting and changing the Day Zero date required a strategic balance.

“There’s a fine line between telling people there's hope, and telling them to bite the bullet,” he said. “The line between urgency and honesty is very hard.”

In order to avoid Day Zero altogether, the Cape Town government has issued water restriction rules and set up collection points all over the city.

AP Photo

Cape Town will be able to stave off the impending Day Zero if its residents fully adopt a conservative approach to water consumption, or if the city receives an extraordinary amount of rainfall in the next month and a half.

Water restrictions began in September 2017, when the city mandated that Capetonians reduce their water use to 87 liters, or about 23 gallons, per person, per day. On Feb. 1, officials again lowered the limit to just 50 liters, or about 13 gallons, per person.

Limberg told BuzzFeed News that the government struggles to accurately assess how closely individuals are following the rules.

“The city has data on how much each household uses on a month-to-month basis from our billing system,” she wrote in an email. “However, we do not know how many people live on each property which makes it difficult to say for sure which households or areas are meeting consumption targets.”

She said that five people living in a house would almost certainly use more water than someone living alone, but that the per capita consumption for the household of five would be lower.

People form long lines every day at the collection points to fill their jugs with water.

Rodger Bosch / AFP / Getty Images

These sites are closely monitored, officials say, and they have also increased the fees for residents who exceed the new restriction mandate.

JP Smith, who oversees the Department of Safety, Security, and Social Services, told BuzzFeed News that some institutions will continue to receive access to water without needing to visit a collection point, places the government refers to as “vulnerable communities.” These include informal settlements — the government term for the makeshift homes erected by the city’s poor — as well as hospitals and clinics, elderly homes, prisons, police and fire stations, and schools.

It’s too soon to say whether what’s happening in Cape Town is a warning sign for other big cities dealing with drought.

Afp Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

Johnston said that, while Cape Town has captured the world’s attention because it’s such a big city, it is not the first to deal with a drought of this magnitude.

“Australia had the Millennium Drought, and that lasted 10 years,” he said, referring to the dry period that hit the southeastern region of the continent. Many said it was Australia’s worst drought in the past 1,000 years.

He also mentioned Los Angeles, another big city recently stricken with drought, but said it was impossible to draw connections between them.

“Whether these droughts are connected to other parts of the world is unknown,” he said.

Even when it comes to Cape Town, Johnston said there was reason to be hopeful. He spoke to BuzzFeed News the same day that Day Zero was pushed back to April 16, and said that the city’s plans to make ocean water drinkable could buy some time as well while everyone anxiously awaits the thing that will ultimately save Cape Town: more rain.

“If rainfall goes back to normal, great,” he said. “We’re in a crisis because we haven’t had enough rain. Making people feel guilty about the drought is useless. It’s not their fault that it hasn’t rained.”


JP Smith's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.